Are "lighter" menus and mini desserts too good to be true?

“Lighter” menus get an upgrade

Many chains offer just five or six “lighter” entrées. But a handful have more.  Here’s a few worth trying to keep calories in check without sacrificing taste. (Memo to restaurants: Even most “lighter” entrées are far too salty.)

Seasons 52 has 40 locations in 18 states, but it’s Season 52growing. Most of its entrees have around 500 calories or less, but make sure to check the menu for outliers in the 700s.

But the chain doesn’t just count calories. From Cedar Plank-Roasted Salmon (see photo) to Wood-Grilled Boneless Rainbow Trout to the seasonal Vegetarian Tasting plate—this winter it features wood-grilled kohlrabi steak, vegan paella, asparagus, and fennel-roasted onion—it’s a far cry from the usual chicken breast and steamed broccoli. The taste? To die for.

The Cheesecake Factory’s SkinnyLicious menu also gets creative, with an impressive 20 entrées and salads that are 590 calories or less. Our faves: the SkinnyLicious Tuscan Chicken entrée (grilled chicken breast, tomatoes, artichokes, capers, fresh basil, balsamic vinaigrette, fresh vegetables, farro), the French Country Salad (mixed greens, grilled asparagus, beets, goat cheese, candied pecans, vinaigrette), and the Fresh Vegetable Salad (asparagus, green beans, tomato, cucumber, roasted beets, apple, edamame, radicchio, romaine, white cheddar, pomegranate vinaigrette). Yum!

Just watch out for a handful of “light” dishes that go way beyond 500 to 600 calories. Maggiano’s “Lighter Take” on Veal Parmesan may be lighter than the original (1,750 calories), but it still packs half a day’s worth of calories (1,090). And not all of the “Enlightened” entrées at BJ’s Brewhouse are light—like the 1,040-calorie Spicy Peanut Chicken with Soba Noodles.

Bottom line: Head for the light…so you don’t end up on the heavy side.

What about mini desserts?

Mini. Shorty. Bite-size. Mini-desserts were a top trend last year, according to the National Restaurant Association. Why? Nation’s Restaurant News said “diners watching their waistlines” was one reason. Even Eat This Not That! said, “As Outbackweight loss strategies go, this one’s pretty delicious: miniature desserts that let you have your cake and lose it, too… Miniature desserts are actually a great diet tool.”

A great diet tool? Clearly, a mini does less damage than the usual 1,000-calorie full-size dessert or milkshake. But even a mini dessert could double the calories in your “light” meal.

Expect 650 to 700 calories in an Outback Steakhouse Double Chocolate Mini Dessert Parfait (see photo), a Yard House Mini Crème Brûlée, or an Uno Mini Macadamia Nut White Chocolate Chunk Deep Dish Cookie Sundae. Bonus: each has roughly a day’s saturated fat and 10 teaspoons of (mostly added) sugar.

But it’s not all bad news. On the lower end, the Mini Indulgences at Seasons 52 and the Dolcini at Olive Garden range from about 200 to 400 calories. For some people, that’s not too bad (if you get just one). But if you’d otherwise skip any dessert, a mini on the menu is a minus.

Bottom line: No matter how petite a mini dessert looks, don’t even think about it before asking how many calories it delivers. doesn’t accept any paid advertising or corporate or government funding. Any products recommended by have been vetted by our staff of nutritionists and are not advertisements by the manufacturers.


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