Diet Friendly Dining: Olive Garden


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  156 comments   :  82,484 Views

Our ongoing Diet Friendly Dining series is intended to help you make informed decisions when enjoying casual dining. Our ongoing recommendation is to aim for a complete meal that is 500 calories and 15-20 grams of fat or less.

Here are some specific things to consider and helpful suggestions to help you make smart choices when dining at Olive Garden Restaurants, which now offer nutritional information on their website. (They were notorious for not divulging nutrition info in the past!)

  • If members of your family have gluten sensitivities, be sure to review the suggested menu items listed at their website to help you identify the best menu options before you head to the restaurant.
  • Portion size is always a key when dining away from home. Eating at lunch time instead of dinner time is one way to enjoy your favorite pasta dish while saving about 300 calories and 15 grams of fat. For example, the dinner portion of Spaghetti with Meat Sauce provides 710 calories, 22 grams of fat and 1340 mg of sodium. However, the lunch portion of the same dish provides only 550 calories, 21 grams of fat and 1040 mg of sodium. If dinner is when you decide to eat out, plan on only eating half of the serving, taking the rest home or sharing the entrée with a friend.
  • Appetizers are typically high calorie and high fat "extras" that can be used as an alternative to an entrée but are best avoided as the start of a meal. If an Appetizer is a must, your best choice would be the Mussels di Napoli which contains only 180 calories and 8 grams of fat but 1800 mg of sodium.
  • Salad and breadsticks are a staple with soups and entrées when dining at this restaurant. Each breadstick with its garlic-butter spread provides 150 calories and 2.5 grams of fat and 350 mg of sodium. The salad with dressing in a typical serving provides 350 calories, 27 grams of fat and 1990 mg of sodium. Care should be taken regarding portion size since these will typically be in addition to a soup or entrée.
  • Soup can be a filling and lower calorie selection especially when coupled with salad and breadsticks. Trying a new taste is safe since most soups offered provide less than 200 calories, 5 grams of fat and 1000 mg of sodium per bowl with the exception of the Chicken and Gnocchi which is slightly higher.
  • Pasta dishes are a staple at this restaurant. Most dinner servings are over 600 calories and 15 grams of fat. One of the best choices would be the Linguine alla Marinara which provides only 430 calories, 6 grams and 900 mg of sodium.
  • Seafood and chicken can provide good choices except when they include rich calorie laden sauces like Alfredo or Carbonara. A good chicken option is the Venetian Apricot Chicken with a dinner portion containing 380 calories, 4 grams of fat and 1420 mg of sodium. If lower fat is more your focus, the Shrimp Primavera is a good choice but does provide 730 calories with only 12 grams of fat and 1620 mg sodium. If lower calorie is more your focus, the Herb Grilled Salmon would be your better choice with 590 calories but 26 grams of fat and only 720 mg of sodium or the Shrimp & Asparagus Risotto with 620 calories, 30 grams of fat but 2530 mg of sodium. It is hard to "get it all" in an entrée, so deciding whether calories, fat or sodium is most important and then using that as your guide might be your best approach when ordering.
  • Children's portions can provide a great aid with portion controlled and lower calorie desires. Don't be afraid to ask your server if the restaurant is agreeable to serving that portion size to adults. The Grilled Chicken with pasta and broccoli is a great choice for 310 calories, 5 grams of fat and only 680 mg of sodium for a complete meal. This is also a great well balanced choice for your children as well.

What are your favorites at Olive Garden? Did you learn anything new or surprising from this review?

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    I've never been fond of the Olive Garden. I do remember when the first one opened in my area people would stand in line outside to eat there. When I tried it I couldn't figure out what the fuss was about. Yeah, the bottomless salad and breadsticks were fairly tasty but their pasta dishes were just a notch above Chef Boyardee. They have improved a bit since then but they are still nothing to write home about.

    I'll eat at Olive Garden if I''m in a group where everyone else wants to go to go there or if I'm traveling and can't find anyplace better. For Italian food my 1st choice would be a local non-chain restaurant; many of these have distinctive delicious food rather than the bland homogenized food chains serve. After that I'd pick Carino's or Macaroni Grill; they are chains but they aren't bad. - 7/18/2009   11:45:43 AM
    Oh my! I tried to eat only half a breadstick. So, I guess if I have one serving of salad and soup with a breadstick, then I am OK. I'd still need to burn calories too. - 7/18/2009   9:14:23 AM
    Wow-I would actually rather not know what the nutritional information for my favorite Olive Garden meal is. Ignorance is bliss and I rarely go there-so I think I can make an exception for a special occassion. However, I was actually surprised about the salad-I love the salad-but I am definitely getting the dressing on the side or maybe trying the soups. As for the breadsticks-I will go to the gym longer if it means I can enjoy them! I have always just ordered ice water with a lemon-its healthier and free!! - 7/17/2009   11:53:42 PM
  • 103
    For any of my spark friends that would like to make your own Olive Garden dishes. Go to my favorite recipe site;, it's a free site, just type in Olive Garden in the search area and you'll see lot's of the recipes and copy-cat recipes which for our purposes just "tweek" them to fit into this lifestyle change. The site is good for anything you can think of and I hope you all enjoy it as much as I have...Chef Jim - 7/17/2009   7:01:24 PM
  • 102
    I love Olive Garden's Fetticini Alfredo or as we always call it, "Heart Attack on a Plate". If we go for dinner, whatever we are ordering, we order the luncheon don't need to order it just for lunch and it is cheaper too! We also still end up taking some home. Better yet, share an entree with a friend/family member. They always put to much dressing on the salad, so get it on the side. Ouch, those breadsticks are dangerous. - 7/17/2009   6:24:18 PM
  • 101
    every time i go to olive garden i get the soup and salad combo (unlimited of each for 5.95!!) and ask for the salad dressing on the side so that i can dip. i get full and still don't feel guilty! usually one (two if i have extra calories or am extra hungry) bowl of soup and one or two plates of salad with a smaller amount of dressing... and if i've really got calories to spare i will add a bread stick! and i only drink water, and usually 2-3 cups to help with the sodium. remember, it is one meal, one day.... not regular! - 7/17/2009   5:29:40 PM
    I've had the apricot chicken and it was wonderful. I would order it even if I weren't watching my fat and calories. It's low enough so that one breadstick or a small portion of the salad is possible as a special treat.

    tirionmanx - 7/17/2009   3:45:33 PM
  • 99
    Next time I go to an Olive Garden I will ask about the children's portion. The chicken and broccoli sounds great! - 7/17/2009   3:14:40 PM
  • 98
    One opened in our area months ago. I received a gift card and I STILL haven't gone. Sounds like the Apricot chicken is the only way to go. Also, I just don't want to be tempted by the smells and all those breadsticks. I hate Italian dressing, though! (I've been using the gift card at Red Lobster.) - 7/17/2009   2:31:13 PM
  • 97
    I love the food but the sodium content is insane! Why does everything need that much sodium? - 7/17/2009   1:09:03 PM
  • 96
    I love Olive Garden, but their sodium content has always been an issue for my family. My husband has tried to talk to the managers over there, but they just act helpless. They would listen to our concern, and then tell us that all their recipes are decided upon in FL, and they cannot change the recipe. I told them that I am not expecting them to change the recipe or any food content, but they are even reluctant to take the concern up to the next level. One of the managers even said that he himself realizes the sodium problem, but might lose his job if he tries to escalate the issue. Infact, he encouraged my husband to escalate it on his own. - 7/17/2009   12:38:19 PM
  • 95
    Wow! I think my heart just stopped beating from inhaling so much sodium....

    To my dear comfort food and best friend, Olive Garden:
    I love you Olive Garden but I think you and I need to part ways. Call me when you learn to lower your sodium content...what the heck, while you're at it, can you also lower your fat and calorie content? Thanks.


    p.s. If there's any way you can make your Tour of Italy health friendly, I'd love you forever and ever....and ever...and ever... - 7/17/2009   11:58:40 AM
  • 94
    I love the shrimp and asparagus risotto, I had no idea it was so lo cal! I might actually considering coming back.

    Just a question on the salad...what is a "typical portion"? That's my only concern. Half the bowl? Just a little plateful? - 7/17/2009   11:44:02 AM
  • 93
    Thanks for the suggestions! I enjoy Olive Garden's meals. - 7/17/2009   10:54:57 AM
    When you are sharing these reviews for restaurants, could you please add the carb amounts. My husband is pre-diabetic and this would be very helpful to me. - 7/17/2009   10:53:29 AM
  • 91
    I think I've eaten at OG three times in my life. But as with ANY restaurant...portion control is huge. I've heard it suggested before to ask for a take-out container when your meal is served. Put away what you don't want to eat before you even start (you can always dig out some extra if you think you've short-changed yourself...but I'll bet you don't!) I wonder if being raised as a "clean your plate" kid has skewed my mentality about feeling I need to finish everything in front of me. But mom and dad regulated the portions, and the "clean plate" meant we ate a healthy BALANCE of foodówe were never overweight as kids. - 7/17/2009   10:51:31 AM
  • 90
    My daughter-in-law's favorite eating place. - 7/17/2009   10:08:36 AM
  • 89
    By the way, you can ask for plain breadsticks without the garlic butter. My dad does this every time not for the calories but b/c he doesn't like the garlic butter! Crazy I know. Definitely not the same but if you must have bread you can save a few calories by getting it plain and dipping it in your entree's sauce.

    Make sure before going here you have a couple bananas or a baked potato for lunch to help balance your potassium to sodium ratio! And drink plenty of water to help flush out the extra sodium that your body doesn't need. - 7/17/2009   10:03:27 AM
  • 88
    Isn't it Olive Garden where you can ask for wheat pasta? - 7/17/2009   10:01:44 AM
  • 87
    A couple of people wanted to know why the undressed salad had so much sodium...could it be from the pickled peppers and the olives they use as garnish....some food have natural sodium as well...but my guess would be the olives and peppers - 7/17/2009   9:45:16 AM
  • JBLAZER123
    Olive Garden is not "real". We never eat there. - 7/17/2009   9:42:32 AM
  • 85
    The Venetian Apricot Chicken is delicious. I looked online prior to going to the restaurant to see what might fall into my calorie/fat ranges. This appeared to be my best choice. I knew walking in what I would order and was not disappointed. - 7/17/2009   9:33:32 AM
  • 84
    I don't find at any of these restaurants I have a problem because the biggest issue is portion sizes. OG meals are huge and usually makes at least 3 meals for me. If you watch how much you eat in a sitting and order carefully it is actually real easy to stay within your calorie ranges. I don't know a restaurant I have ever gone to where I actually eat the entire meal on my plate. I always have leftovers to take home. - 7/17/2009   9:07:55 AM
  • JOANW1
    Thank you so much for this detailed article. Olive Garden is my favorite restaurant. I know even the soup and salad are high, but giving me other options here help a lot. I now know that I can order the Venetian Apricot Chicken and stay within my limits and that my spouse can order the Salmon or shrimp (since he doesn't like chicken). These types of articles are very helpful. Thanks againl.

    Joan W1 - 7/17/2009   8:57:04 AM
  • 82
    Only ate there once and that was about 1 year ago.....the bread sticks were awesome....but so glad I didn't know the calorie's in them then..........may try again....not sure.....Italian food is not "all that" for me at least - 7/17/2009   8:40:50 AM
  • 81
    I love Olive Garden and just found out they are building one in my town, but my issue is the high salt content. Why oh why do restaurants have to add so much salt to everything?? When dining out, I usually opt for a grilled fish and take half of it home for the next day. - 7/17/2009   8:25:51 AM
  • 80
    We rarely go to our local Olive Garden, because the wait is typically between 1-2 hours, no matter how early we seem to arrive. The kids love it though, so sometimes we do eat there. If we do happen to eat there, we generally bring home at least 1/2 our meals and eat them for leftovers the next day. I wouldn't say that the quality is as good as some of our local authentic Italian restaurant; we'd rather save our indulgence for the real thing. - 7/17/2009   8:06:02 AM
  • SKOTT67
    We go to Olive Garden once every couple of months. I usually order the Soup and salad. I eat one Bread stick, order the minestrone soup, and get the low fat salad dressing on the side. It tastes as good as the original.

    The OG website has a nutrional guide. Make sure you look at it before you go. - 7/17/2009   8:05:20 AM
  • 78
    You can also request the low-fat dressing which has something like 35 calories per serving. I am a weight watchers girl, and I go there for lunch for soup and salad. No breadsticks of course, but a filling lunch of soup and salad has 5 points. - 7/17/2009   7:56:27 AM
  • 77
    Their dinner portions are so large that my husband and I can split an entree and still be full. The last time we went, we filled up on salad and I ate 1/3 of my manicotti. We then split the manicotti for lunch the next day. However, if we ate 700 calories of salad each that evening, that no longer looks so good. At least I skipped the bread sticks! - 7/17/2009   7:51:29 AM
  • 76
    We usually go at lunch time and get the soup/salad/breadsticks combo. A bowl of soup (I like the minestrone), a breadstick and some salad really is enough for lunch, and if you get the salad cheese-free and with the dressing on the side, you can save a few more calories. - 7/17/2009   4:33:05 AM
  • 75
    This article is really timely for me. I'm suppose to eat there next week. This will be a big help. - 7/17/2009   1:13:50 AM
  • 74
    We ate there on Saturday and had the soup and salad. I had one serving of each and my husband got four bowls and 2 extra salads. So it works fine. - 7/17/2009   12:43:24 AM
  • 73
    We ate there on Saturday and had the soup and salad. I had one serving of each and my husband got four bowls and 2 extra salads. So it works fine. - 7/17/2009   12:42:29 AM
  • 72
    We ate there on Saturday and had the soup and salad. I had one serving of each and my husband got four bowls and 2 extra salads. So it works fine. - 7/17/2009   12:42:11 AM
  • 71
    Someone said "their food does not taste like authentic Italian and isn't worth the calories" and I completely agree. I love authentic (or close to) Italian food, and to me it's something that I will splurge on every once in a while.

    I always make requests at restaurants, but I plan on going somewhere where I am going to have to tell them to change more than 5 things I just won't go there. - 7/16/2009   11:41:28 PM
  • 70
    What would the salad be plain with dressing on the side? I tried the whole wheat blinguini with marinara. It was good and satisfying. - 7/16/2009   9:42:42 PM
  • 69
    Between their unhealthy (shudder) food and the close-minded political views - I haven't set food in there in years and don't plan on changing that. - 7/16/2009   9:38:53 PM
  • 68
    I used to go there for their all you can eat soup and salad until I found out how many calories their soup and salad actually had. I haven't been to Olive Garden over 10 years. - 7/16/2009   8:32:04 PM
  • 67
    Actually, my sister's friend works at Olive garden and said that the breadstick itself has 150 calories, but once they brush on the butter and the seasoning that they put on there it ups it to almost 400 calories! - 7/16/2009   7:15:10 PM
  • 66
    Coach, quoting your post, "Garden-Fresh Salad (One serving without dressing) 120 calories 3.5 g of total fat 550 mg of sodium"--how do they get that much sodium BEFORE adding the dressing? marinate the greens in brine?
    - 7/16/2009   6:26:53 PM
  • 65
    My family loves OG. I have been getting the Venetian Apricot Chicken. Very good and filling. I love their salad. I prefer to get it with the dressing on the side, but my family likes it served with it. I think next time I'll either ask for a seperate salad with dressing on the side, or ask for the low fat dressing. I didn't know they had a LF version. I will also check about the children's portions for an adult too.
    I have found that by being willing to stray from my usual selections, I can eat at most restaurants without over indulging. - 7/16/2009   6:19:24 PM
  • 64
    No wonder the salad and bread sticks taste like a meal - they are! - 7/16/2009   5:46:26 PM
  • 63
    Food is good. Sodium is a proverbial salt mine and a recipe for a stroke! - 7/16/2009   4:34:14 PM
  • 62
    I refuse to go to Olive Garden, since years ago I asked for some substitutions to make a dish more healthy and was told they couldn't do that (and they had the items, since they were in other menu dishes).

    I think we will see more restaurant chains make an effort with their nutritional data since California passed a law requiring all restaurants with more than 5 or 10 (I forget which) locations to make that information available. My guess is that it went effective July 1, since one chain we frequent had the information last week, and until then, they had claimed it was too complicated, etc. - 7/16/2009   4:25:15 PM
  • 61
    I love their salad but I DON'T love the 27g of fat... you can ask them not to dress it and bring the dressing on the side. Also, according to the website, there is a reduced fat version available too, listed in the Garden Fare section of the Nutrition info. - 7/16/2009   3:29:44 PM
  • 60
    i typically stick with a half portion of linguine alla marinara. i used to get the alfredo, but after discovering how many calories & how much sodium, i completely eliminated that. i don't like their bread sticks as much as other people do, there's just too much garlic salt crap on them.

    i tend to just go for the salad. i eat it bare; no croutons, cheese, or olives & with ranch on the side. - 7/16/2009   3:28:30 PM
  • 59
    Just received a gift card for OG so I was glad to know that they have made their nutrition facts available online. Now I will be able to do my "homework" before I go and not have to guess at what menu item(s) to choose. - 7/16/2009   2:32:33 PM
  • 58
    Our review comes from the restaurant's provided information. For the salad, they state -
    Garden-Fresh Salad (One serving with dressing) 350 calories 27 grams of total fat 1990 mg of sodium

    Garden-Fresh Salad (One serving without dressing) 120 calories 3.5 g of total fat 550 mg of sodium

    So clearly they are using a great deal of salad dressing when they dress the salad and serve.
    - 7/16/2009   2:27:11 PM
    I think it is really great that OG now has the calories, etc. on their web site. They have probably done it because of the law in NY that requires that restaurants list the nutritional information on their menus. Now we can go in and make better choices or plan our calorie intake for the day knowing what we are going to eat in the restaurant. This will make it easier to go there occasionally instead of avoiding their restaurant because of the lack of nutritional information. Bravo Olive Garden!

    - 7/16/2009   2:25:15 PM

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