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How to Choose Healthy Meals at Italian Restaurants

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It is possible to eat healthy meals at an Italian restaurant.

It is possible to eat healthy meals at an Italian restaurant.

Healthy Italian Food Options

Eating at an Italian restaurant can be a minefield for anyone trying to watch their calories or eat healthy food. Many of the items on the menu are rich foods, smothered in either creamy sauce or gooey cheese, and they're high in fat, carbs, sodium and calories.

To make matters worse, the serving sizes are often huge, and many restaurants offer extras like unlimited breadsticks before your meal (which can be hard to resist).

Guidelines for Choosing Healthy Meals

However, all of this is not a reason to avoid ever eating at an Italian restaurant again. You just need to be aware of the serious offenders to know which items to stay away from, as well as the healthier options.

General Tips

  • In general, it's best to avoid anything fried, covered in creamy sauces or laden with cheese.
  • Items that are grilled or steamed are typically the healthiest options as they are lower in fat and calories than similar items that are sauteed or fried.
  • Try to avoid snacking on breadsticks or bread before your meal. Instead, have a salad with a light dressing or one of the healthier appetizers suggested below.
  • If you think you might be tempted by the breadsticks before your meal, have a light snack before leaving for the restaurant. Something with a bit of protein in it will help prevent you from devouring everything in sight while you wait for your meal.
  • Skip the empty calories from beverages and order water instead of soda or alcohol.

Tips on Ordering Pasta

  • If you order pasta, choose one served with a tomato sauce rather than a cream or meat sauce.
  • Beware of pasta portion sizes, which are typically huge. It's usually a safer option to go with a meat and vegetable entrée rather than an entrée based around a huge portion of pasta.

Tips on Ordering Pizza

  • If you're craving pizza, stay away from deep dish pizza or pizza with thick or stuffed crusts.
  • You'll also want to avoid meat toppings like pepperoni, sausage and bacon, which are all high in saturated fats and calories and contain nitrates. Instead, choose pizza with a thin crust and lots of veggie toppings and request 1/2 the cheese, if you're really trying to be good.
  • Instead of eating a whole pizza, just have one or two slices with some salad or veggies on the side. You can either share the pizza with someone else or save the rest for lunch or dinner the next day.
Pasta dishes are often very high in fat, carbohydrates and calories—choose wisely!

Pasta dishes are often very high in fat, carbohydrates and calories—choose wisely!

Foods to Avoid

Red Flags on the Menu:Contains:Reason to Avoid:A Healthier Option:

Alfredo sauce

Butter, cream, Parmesan cheese

High in saturated fat and calories

Marinara sauce

Carbonara sauce

Bacon or pancetta, oil or butter, cheese, egg yolks, sometimes cream

High in saturated fat, sodium and calories

Pomodoro sauce

Fried or sauteed

Cooked in oil or butter

High in calories and saturated fat

Grilled, baked or steamed


Cooked in large quantity of oil, often covered in batter

High in saturated fat and calories

Pretty much anything else

Stuffed pasta

Usually lots of cheese

High in calories, carbohydrates and saturated fat

Whole wheat pasta with tomato sauce

Chicken Parmiagana or Chicken Parmesan

Battered chicken (sometime deep-fried), lots of cheese

High in fat, sodium and calories

Grilled chicken

Garlic bread

Lots of oil or butter; often topped with cheese

High in calories, carbohydrates and fat


Thick crust or deep dish pizza

Lots of dough

High in carbohydrates and fat

Thin crust pizza


Large quantities of cheese and often meat

High in carbs, fat and calories

Spaghetti with marinara sauce

Steamed mussels are a healthy choice.

Steamed mussels are a healthy choice.

Healthy Choices

If possible, it's a good idea to plan ahead by checking the restaurant's menu before you go. Most restaurants now post their menus online, so it's usually possible to plan exactly what you're going to order before you even arrive.

Here are some healthy menu options you may find at your favourite Italian restaurant:


  • Salad or "Insalata": Look for salads with a variety of fresh vegetables, and order with an oil and vinegar or balsamic dressing. Avoid fatty extras like croutons, bacon bits, cheese and creamy dressings.
  • Soup: Choose broth-based soups like minestrone over creamy soups.
  • Steamed mussels: Low in fat and full of important nutrients, mussels are a healthy choice for either an appetizer or a meal.
  • Grilled calamari: A much healthier option than calamari that has been covered in batter and deep-fried.
  • Bruschetta: If you must have bread with your meal, bruschetta is a healthier option than breadsticks or garlic bread. It usually contains less fat, and you get the vitamins and antioxidants from the tomato topping.


  • Chicken Piccata
  • Chicken Marsala
  • Grilled Fish
  • Grilled Chicken Breast
  • Pasta: If you really want some pasta, spaghetti with tomato sauce is your best choice. Marinara sauce and pomodoro sauce are good options, and you can choose whole wheat pasta if it's available. Just watch the portion size! Most Italian restaurants serve obscenely large pasta serving sizes which are often enough for several meals.

For all of these, the healthiest side dishes are grilled or roasted vegetables or a salad.


The healthiest option is to skip dessert altogether, but some dessert options are definitely less deadly than others. The healthiest choices on the menu usually are:

  • Fruit sorbet
  • Fresh berries
  • Biscotti
Substitute roasted or grilled vegetables for pasta or potatoes with your entrée for added nutrition and fewer calories.

Substitute roasted or grilled vegetables for pasta or potatoes with your entrée for added nutrition and fewer calories.

Balance Healthy Choices and Indulgence

While in theory it is quite possible to eat a very healthy meal at an Italian restaurant, in reality, we all have our weaknesses. By being mindful of what the healthy options are, you may want to make a conscious decision to splurge on one part of your meal, while making healthier choices for the rest of your meal.

For example, if tiramisu is your favourite dessert of all time, you may decide it's worth skipping the pasta and breadsticks to be able to indulge in dessert. The trick is to just pick one indulgence to keep the meal as healthy as possible, and remember that often a small amount can be enough to satisfy your craving.

© 2013 Kathy Sima