Walking Guide

Diet Friendly Dining: Olive Garden

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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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KHALIA2 2/24/2018
Great article! Thank you! Report
ELRIDDICK 1/14/2018
Thanks for sharing Report
An interesting commentary on a favorite restaurant
CECELW 8/28/2017
I do love OG but seldom go. It is so fatty and salty that I feel really uncomfortable for days after eating there. It's like, I think I can actually "feel" my arteries clogging!! Report
I think after reading this there are better choices and better food out there. I love Olive Garden for what it is but with this kind of calorie counts....I will find some other places to go eat out... Report
I love Olive Garden, and after reading this, I plan on getting the salad dressing's on the side. The breadsticks are so addicting, but latley I have controlled myself, and would have only one, and then controll myself from taking more of them. I also take half of what I order home, and only eat half, and save the other half for either lunch or dinner the next night. Report
Not a huge fan but I guess I liked the soup and salad. Would rather go to Red Lobster or Old Spaghetti Factory. Report
Glad I saw this before going to Olive Garden. My Husband has been begging for me to there with him for over a year. I skipped the bread sticks, got salad and had it with no dressing or croutons and ordered the shrimp vesuvio without the bacon and ordered whole wheat pasta. The dish alone is 520 calories, so my guess with out the bacon it has to be in the low to middle 400's which makes me happy. Though I did want one of their breadsticks. Thank you for the article. Report
Years ago, my college-age son introduced me to Olive Garden, their 3-servings portions, AND their take-home boxes. As his siblings began attending colleges, the tradition continued on. The only complaint? Roommates! Report
I love eating at Olive Garden but am always "afraid" of the breadsticks and the high sodium content of even healthy dishes. Thanks for this great information and the informative tips. Report
A few weeks ago, I went to Olive Garden for lunch with my boyfriend. Had the salad, and lunch portion of the Venetian Apricot Chicken. It was delicious. I let him take care of the breadsticks. ;-) Report
Ask for the salad dressing on the side. Ask for breadsticks plain & a side of marinara sauce for dipping. Report
I couldn't believe it when I read about the sodium content of the salad with the dressing at Olive Garden. The worst part about it is that I found out about it when I read this article on my husband's Blackberry, precisely at Olive Garden, right after I had eaten my salad!!!! :-/ Needless to say, I was quite unhappy thereafter. I was told by the waitress that all their sauces are already pre-made. So much for making it from scratch. I had the Capellini Pomodoro with chicken. Not bad, but I put half of it in a to-go box. As soon as I arrived home, I had to drink a Fuze with a lot of potassium, to counteract the sodium in a salad and entree at Olive Garden. I don't think I'll go back there for a long time, unless they cut back on the salt! Report
My boyfriend and I went out to Olive Garden tonight and at first, before going, I wasn't too excited with the impending caloric intake I was about to undergo. But then I read this article and planned a healthy meal ahead of time: minestrone soup, 1 breadstick, and a half portion of the apricot chicken. Not only did I remain in my daily goal calories, fat, and carbs, but I was able to take home the left over chicken to eat as a delicious lunch tomorrow. :) love this website! Best tool I ever came across! Report
I love OG and the unlimiteds were right up my alley. Now I have difficulty bec I really am tempted to do unlimited binge eating and that's a definite no-no. So they're a red light restaurant for me. The last time I ate there I had a handful of Tums for dessert! I can't handle the fat and sodium content anymore. I think I will definitely try that kids' chicken, pasta and brocolli meal when I inevitably go there again, so thanks for the advice. Report
I would just like to share that I emailed the headquarters when I first started SparkPeople more than a year ago and asked them for the nutritional information. I told them that I wouldn't allow myself to eat anything that I couldn't count, even if it is a favorite and to please get the information out so my family and I can dine there again. I am REALLY happy that they have chosen to listen to all of us! Report
I like to go there. Minestrone Soup, followed by Linguine Marinara and a breadstick. Sometimes 2 breadsticks!!! Fortunately there is not a location near us so we don't go there very often. Report
My father loves Olive Garden so I go there with him periodically and always struggle because what I really want is the horribly fatty but delicious food that they have! Plus everything on the menu has so much sodium. I wish they would use mixed greens in their salads instead of iceberg lettuce! Sometimes I will get minestrone soup and salad. I don't eat "white" pasta so the few times I get pasta I will order whole wheat with maybe just the marinara sauce. I have gotten the Venetian Apricot Chicken which is very good. Always eat half and take half home. Report
I love the Olive Garden! YUM...But I always leave with a doggy bag and get 2 to 3 meals out of one dish. Report
Thank you!! I never knew that the salads at Olive Garden were so calorie-heavy. I'll definitely keep this article to reference the next time I'm planning to go there. Report
After looking at the nutritional values at olive garden I will never eat there again. If I am gonna eat out I don't want to fill up on salad and only have 1 "healthier" meal option there. Almost all their dishes are ridiculously high in fat, calories and sodium. I'd be better off making their same dishes in a healthier manner at home. Report
Olive Garden has been one of my favorite restaurants for many years. I always order salad dressing on the side, and skip the olives and bread sticks. Since I have been limiting salt for some time, I find the entres a little too salty now. (Isn't that great,lol) Eating out is a treat and I don't indulge too often, but thoroughly enjoy it when I do. I can always spend a little extra time on the treadmill to compensate! Report
When we go there for lunch, I get the unlimited soup and salad option.. if you don't eat the breadsticks (or just half of one if you have to), get one bowl of minestrone, and load up on salad (dressing on the side of course), then OG is fine. I dip my fork into the dressing and sprinkle a little on my salad to make the calorie count lower, and I still get the taste of their dressing. You can always order dressing on the side so load up on the veggies!! Report
I went to Olive Garden this week with a group of friends and took advantage of the online nutrition posting on OG's website to prepare myself for what I would order. It was so helpful. I had a glass of wine instead of a breadstick, very little salad, and pasta pomodoro with the whole wheat pasta option. I took home leftovers of the pasta sufficient to have three more meals. I just added broccoli and cauliflower in massive quantities and had a wonderful dish. Report
Thanx for the much needed info, I had OG a weekend ago, and I ate 6 breadsticks! I dont even want to think about it.
I will be well armed the next time I visit OG. Report
Definite eye-opener! Salad isn't always the best option... Report
I never knew there was so much sodium in OG foods. I have been able to go off one of my meds for high BP by giving up salt ad refined carbohydrates. That means no added salt and lots of fresh foods. Cheese has been banned from my kitchen too. On the Rx only it is a savings of $120. I will be bringing my own dressing if I go to Olive Garden again. Report
I enjoy the Olive Garden and if I have a meal always choose the Linguine alla Marinara with the salad. Otherwise I am a fan of the salad, soup and breadsticks. I typically only have 1 breadstick but until I looked at this never realized how quickly the sodium and fat can add up on the quantity of salad I consume. My favorite soup is their Minestrone.

Appreciated this article. Report
I love pasta! Chicken Alfredo is my fav. On the occassions that we go to OG (or to Johnny Corino's!), I eat half or less of my entree and eat very little bread. I don't worry about it since it's so seldom that I go and I usually have some extra points to fool with. Report
I've always noticed that most of the dishes at the Olive Garden taste insanely salty. It's nice to know that the numbers corroborate that. I've been quite pleased ordering JUST soup there for the past year or so...I usually get two bowls for under 300 calories (one minestrone, one zuppe toscana), which leaves room for a breadstick or two. It's always very satisfying, and I don't feel guilty afterwards. Report
I love the luncheon portion of the Venetian Apricot Chicken! Plus I order the endless salad bowl without dressing. Yummers! Report
I don't think The Olive Garden is around in Canada anymore - at least not in Toronto. I miss it. I used to have such a good time there! Unlimited soup and salad !! I would have a ball. They must have gone out of business cuz of me. Good thing I don't live in the states. Report
I love the Olive Garden but there is not one close. When we travel I always like to go there. In fact we are going there tomorrow. This helped me make a healthy choice.. Report
I love Olive Garden and just ate there last weekend.
I usually order the Capellini Pomodoro with whole wheat Pasta. I usually eat maybe half and take the other half home for the next day. They also have the salad dressing in a low fat version. And I always just have water with my meal. Report
I'm a long time fan of the Kid's Grilled Chicken and broccoli there. The chicken has awesome flavor (which is thanks to the sodium, I'm sure).

Some locations serve the kid's meal to adults with no fuss, others sort of hem and haw but then give in. I usually ask for the nutritional info at the resturant (even though I know what I want) and then order the kid's meal off of that brochure, I tend to get the least fuss that way.

Enjoy! Report
Im definately saving this one. I thought i would never be able to go there again lol. i mean all the heavy sauces and what not. But i guess my new stratefy would be have an even smaller portion at the restuarant n bring the rest home. and just one breadstick insteada like 3 lol. Report
I love Olive Garden especially their breadsticks and salad, fortunately the closest one is 5 hours away. I don't find I enjoy going out to restaurants the way I used to. Since tracking what I eat, I see just how calorie laden and large restaurant portions are. Report
Olive Garden is my favorite restaurant....I've learned to ask for the luncheon size portion of my choice. as long as it is on the lunch menu, my local OG is very happy to accomodate. Another trick is to order your meal to-go....then you can take it home and measure out normal quantities and have more than one meal from it. Report
I like the Capellini Pomodoro, which is Roma tomatoes, garlic, fresh basil and extra-virgin olive oil tossed with capellini. Another good entre is the Linguine alla Marinara, Pasta with a zesty blend of ripe tomatoes, onions and herbs.

I usually start with a garden salad (I ask them to hold the cheese and croutons), and balsamic vinaigrette dressing on the side.
My favorite Olive Garden dishes are far from the healthiest....so for that reason I avoid going there except for very special occasions. I can't say "no" to the breadsticks--we're talking 3 or 4 while waiting for the entree! Then the entree itself....I love the 5-cheese ziti. Like I said, I don't go there often--I can't trust myself! Report
Gosh - I'm remembering all those afternoons of Chicken Alfredo lunches with salad and two breadsticks and feeling slightly nauseous at the thought of all those consumed calories! It was a once a week treat when I was pregnant and it didn't stop for a long time. Report
well i like to get the tour of italy from the olive garden....lol!.... i know i'm probably don't need to eat that though...lol Report
thanks for the information Sparkpeople! I'm not surprised there are few healthy choices to eat at Olive Garden. I will check the website first if I plan on visiting. Report
I love the soup and salad. Now I know to go easy on the salad! Report
I order the salad without dressing. I add vinegar or bring dressing from home! Report
The salad at Olive Garden is worse for you than the soup! Oh my! I knew big "meal sized" salads were trouble, but it never occurred to me that eating a "meal sized" portion of OG salad would rack up the calories so fast... Report
Darden Restaurant Group is who you need to get ahold of in FL regarding any issues with menus, sodium content, etc. Also, feel free to browse ebay for the "Top Secret" recipes...they have the salad dressing and a couple of the entrees listed in the books. We have "Olive Garden Night" at home where I get the reduced fat crescent rolls and make up my own garlic butter (garlic powder sprinkled on the rolls after a spritz of ICBINB (I cant believe its not Buter) and I make up my own salad dressing as well. Toss in some old Dean Martin records and viola...! Report
The only thing I get at Olive Garden is soup and salad. I was shocked at the calories in a salad serving. I will ask for the dressing on the side next time. I seldom eat the bread sticks, but 150 calories no way. Report
I have never been a big fan of Olive Garden, but when I do go next (my mom likes it), I'll make sure to ask for the salad dressing on the side and will stick to one breadstick. Report
It's hard for me to see Olive Garden as an option for anyone trying to create new healthy eating habits. I'd only go as part of a group, then stick to soup or salad. At 700 calories & unspeakable sodium levels for salad and a breadstick, I'd have only 500-700 calories left for the rest of the day. Report
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