Family Dining

by Charles Platkin, PhD


Denny’s is one of the leading family restaurant chains in the country, with about 1,600 units. They’re typically open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a menu that features a variety of breakfast items along with standards like hamburgers, steaks, salads and desserts. However, Denny’s has developed a “Fit Fare” menu, so you can make healthier choices.

  • Grilled Chicken Breast Salad (without dressing): 259 , 11g fat, 10g carbs
  • Turkey Breast Salad (without dressing): 248 calories, 8g fat, 12g carbs
  • Fit Fare Grilled Chicken Breast Dinner: 184 calories, 5g fat, 11g carbs; add two sides — plain baked potato: 220 calories, 0g fat, 51g carbs — and green beans: 40 calories, 1g fat, 8g carbs
  • Boca Burger with a small fruit bowl: 508 calories, 11g fat, 78g carbs
  • Vegetable Beef Soup: 79 calories, 1g fat, 11g carbs
  • Steakhouse Strip Dinner (no sides): 410 calories, 27g fat, 3g carbs

Fit Tip: Watch the sodium content. In most casual dining restaurants, it’s usually off the charts. For instance, the Roast Turkey and Stuffing on Denny’s Fit Fare menu has 4,620 milligrams of sodium — wow, about three times what’s recommended for a day. To save calories, if you order the sandwiches go bare and skip the bread. Also, stay away from the Mini Burgers with onion rings: 2,044 calories, 122g fat and 179g carbs.

Bob Evans
With more than 560 family restaurants, Bob Evans offers many high-calorie meals but also quite a few healthy items. The best news is that this chain offers nutrition information on its Web site, so you can plan ahead. Here are some good options.

  • Grilled Chicken Dinner: 359 calories, 20g fat, 12g carbs
  • Grilled New Orleans-Style Catfish: 270 calories, 18g fat, 4g carbs
  • Lite Sausage Breakfast: 469 calories, 21g fat, 48g carbs
  • Fruit & Yogurt Plate: 414 calories, 2g fat, 96g carbs
  • Bean Soup (1 cup): 122 calories, 3g fat, 16g carbs

Fit Tip: Substitute grilled garden vegetables for your fries and have them prepared without margarine or oil. Avoid the steak selections, which are all very high in calories and fat. For salad dressings, stick with the “side” portion, as opposed to the “dinner” portion, which is double the size, and order one of the low-cal dressings.

  • Lite Italian dressing (“side” portion): 82 calories
  • Lite Ranch dressing (“side” portion): 103 calories

There are approximately 500 Perkins Restaurant & Bakery locations in about 35 states. Since Perkins doesn’t provide nutrition information on its Web site, you need to be on the lookout for clues. Choose foods that are grilled, baked or broiled, and avoid anything called stacked, smothered or supreme. The following are healthier choices:

  • 7 ounce Top Sirloin Steak with steamed broccoli and a baked potato
  • Grilled Atlantic Cod — but watch the tartar sauce!

Fit Tip: Skip the bakery part of the restaurant, especially the bread bowls, which can be like having seven slices of bread!

International House of Pancakes (IHOP)
The company’s nearly 2,000 restaurants, open 24 hours a day, are best known for their high-calorie breakfasts, but they also offer standard family fare (sandwiches, burgers and salads) for lunch and dinner.

While no nutrition information is available on its Web site, the company claims that all of the following have less than 600 calories (although some of these dishes won’t be available until they unveil their new menu in November or December):

  • Short stack of buttermilk pancakes, topped with margarine and sugar-free syrup
  • Boca burger with a side salad and reduced-calorie dressing
  • Ham scramble: egg substitute with diced ham, served with two buttermilk pancakes, Promise margarine, sugar-free syrup
  • Garden scramble: egg substitute, mushrooms, peppers, onions and tomatoes, two buttermilk pancakes, Promise margarine, sugar-free syrup
  • Plain grilled chicken breast with salad, reduced-calorie dressing, steamed broccoli
  • Grilled chicken breast dinner: Skip the toasted garlic bread and order low-calorie dressing with the side salad

Fit Tip: Skip the “Double Dinners” — they’re just double the calories and double trouble — and the “Signature Breakfasts” — typically the foods that have the most calories. Don’t fall for the Harvest Grain ‘N Nut Combo, which may sound healthy but isn’t even whole grain. Also avoid the “By the Basketful” items, which are basically fried foods plus french fries. And be sure to ask for grilled vegetables without butter or oil.

There are nearly 660 Friendly’s family-style restaurants in 16 states, many in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states. Although a Friendly’s spokesperson made it clear that they are an ice cream shop — emphasizing that the primary reason to go there is to indulge — they still manage to have “Lighter Choice” selections on their menu. Some, however, are just low-carb items that are high in calories, so be wary of those. Unfortunately, nutrition information is not available.

The following menu items appear to be the lowest in calories and fat according to our staff nutritionists.

  • Chicken Noodle Soup
  • Side salad with low-fat Italian dressing.
  • Grilled Chicken Deluxe
  • Roast Turkey
  • Gardenburger
  • Fat-free frozen yogurt

Fit Tip: Many of the menu items are fried or have added cheese or bacon, and with ice cream everywhere, this place can be a nightmare. Stick to the lighter menu, but if you want to order from the regular menu, make sure to order grilled — not fried — items and substitute salads for fries.

Waffle House
This is one of the largest family-style restaurant chain, with about 1,400 outlets. The menu features steaks, burgers and sandwiches — and of course waffles. Unfortunately, there aren’t many healthy offerings to choose from other than the following.

  • Egg whites
  • Grilled Chicken
  • Chicken Salad

Fit Tip: Avoid the waffles. The batter is made with milk, eggs and butter, and when you have a couple with syrup and butter on top, you’re looking at more than 1,200 calories. Also, avoid the hash browns, even if they try to convince you otherwise — you can do much better calorie-wise with a baked potato, a little ketchup and half a pat of butter.

Cracker Barrel
If you’ve ever traveled on a highway, you’ve surely spotted this neat restaurant chain. There are about 515 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store restaurants in 40 states. Known for their country design and home-style cooking, they have a large menu and plenty of healthier options. Breakfast is served all day, and the choices include egg whites and whole-wheat bread.

All the following are less than 400 calories:

  • Chicken n’ Dumplins Country Dinner Plate (9 ounces) with 4 ounces of green beans and carrots
  • Grilled Chicken Tenders Country Dinner Plate (four tenders) with 4 ounces of corn and green beans
  • Vegetable Dinner Plate with corn (4 ounces), green beans (4 ounces), carrots (4 ounces) and turnip greens (5 ounces)

You can also get a house salad (hold the croutons and use fat-free Italian or ranch dressing) and a 12-ounce bowl of soup (vegetable, potato, turkey noodle, chicken noodle, chicken noodle and vegetable, cheesy tomato, chicken n’ rice) for less than 500 calories.

Fit Tip: They’re very helpful and aim to prepare foods the way you like them. Order your grilled dishes prepared with cooking spray instead of oil. Avoid many of the “Daily Dinner Features” — pure comfort foods with mega calories — and Fancy Fixin’s (other than Lemon Pepper Grilled Trout ordered with a little oil). Watch out for all the fried offerings, and make sure to ask for healthier sides such as a baked potato or vegetables made without oil or butter.

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