The Most Nutritious Dishes At Olive Garden Might Surprise You

Sensible eaters might not think of Olive Garden as a restaurant where informed dining choices can be made. With its abundance of buttery bread sticks delivered endlessly to tables whenever waitstaff detect an empty basket and decadent recreations of classic Italian dishes that don't exactly scream "nutritious eating," being dubious of any healthful possibilities is natural. It's a restaurant not known for restraint when it comes to menu planning, and its most popular dishes can be a challenge for cautious eaters to navigate. especially when trying to develop a strategy for the never-ending pasta that's competing for your appetite.

But what if you knew there were nutritious dishes at Olive Garden that buck the tradition of indulgence while still offering a satisfying meal? It just so happens that these fast-casual finds do exist — and we're not talking about the soup and salad selections either. These dishes are prime picks from deep in the Garden, rich Italian classics that let you eat like a tourist without losing sight of your well-being. The secret is in knowing the nutritional profile behind the dishes so you can home in on your healthiest plates and order accordingly. We pored over the nutrition facts for the restaurant's menu and picked our favorite selections that offer the most healthful possibilities regarding calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Though there's a bit of balancing to do between some of those aspects, the number and quality of our findings turned out to be a seriously delicious surprise.

Shrimp scampi

By far the healthiest item on both the Olive Garden dinner and lunch menus, shrimp scampi strips back the excessive sauce coverage and overly hearty add-ins to provide a super nutritious order that's also quite enjoyable. Garlic sauce adorns angel hair pasta with asparagus tips and tomato chunks strewn about the plate to accompany whole shrimp cooked until juicy and tender. As delectable as it appears in photographs, you might not realize that it's a surprisingly fresh dish from Olive Garden that won't make you regret your decision when the check arrives.

The truth is, shrimp scampi is your top choice for both enjoyment and nutrition. With this dish on the table, you'll be dining on a modest 490 calories and a sensible 18 grams of fat, thanks in part to a lighter sauce. The 165 milligrams of cholesterol are well below the daily recommendation of less than 300 milligrams. The 1,120 milligrams of sodium may seem high, but knowing you'll be treating yourself to this meal for lunch or dinner will allow you to adjust the rest of your eating throughout the day to make sure you stay within range. And that's not to mention the 29 grams of protein that comes with it.

Spaghetti with marinara

Not only is spaghetti with marinara a nutritious option at the Garden, it's also a vegetarian option that non-meat eaters can savor with comfort, knowing they'll be well within their daily macros. As the essential Italian dish, spaghetti is often maligned as a carb bomb, often dressed with sauces and toppings that only make matters more questionable. But Olive Garden has figured out how to maximize the goodness by using a light hand while doling out the add-ins. The result is a feel-good feast that doesn't go overboard but still gives you a chance to savor a satisfying lunch or dinner.

Ordering up a bowl of marinara-topped spaghetti nets you 490 calories, a supremely workable total that brings along only 12 grams of fat. The 1,290 milligrams of sodium are less than half of your daily recommended allowance, and the 15 grams of protein arrive without chicken, beef, or fish as part of the arrangement. If it tastes like something is missing, it might be the cholesterol; this unsavory element weighs in at zero milligrams, a win for a pasta dish that has so much to offer. In a world that loves every next new thing coming around the bend, it's nice to know you can settle in with this old-fashioned delight and be confident that you've chosen well.

Spaghetti with meat sauce

Carnivores looking for a little heartier bite to top their pasta may be happy to learn that the spaghetti with meat sauce at Olive Garden is one of the more healthful possibilities to dig into. The rustic comfort of this plate with its winding coils of full-sized spaghetti and a mound of robust meat sauce resting on top is one of the purest Italian dining experiences in the Old World cookbook. It's familiar fare and a popular option on the menu that never loses its charm. It's also one of the more nutritious dishes you can go for, one that doesn't skimp on heartiness or authenticity.

When you signal the waitstaff to bring you this classic platter, you'll be getting 640 calories with 22 grams of fat, an entirely passable total for pasta with meat sauce. There are also a hefty 26 grams of protein scattered about the plate and a sodium count of 1,050 milligrams — the most modest of all the dishes on our list. There may be many shady things about Olive Garden's menu, but spaghetti with meat sauce isn't one of them. It's a straightforward winner that delivers flavor and nutrition on a menu where more questionable temptations abound.

Herb-grilled salmon

As long as it isn't battered and deep-fried or slathered in vegetable oil, fish is often the healthiest option at any restaurant. Olive Garden goes with the flow by providing an herb-grilled salmon dish that satisfies pescatarians who need an Italian dining fix. With a simple plate bearing a well-cooked salmon steak with steamed broccoli on the side, there's a bit of dining space left for the soup or salad option this order requires. And if you choose to pass those on to the diner on your right, you can earn a bit of nutritional credit to spend on another meal during the day.

This nutritious dish may be one of Olive Garden's best-kept secrets. In addition to the natural goodness of broccoli and the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in the salmon, this plate brings dependable dining with 610 calories — and, yes, 45 grams of fat, though being a fish recipe, the fat has a more healthful profile than other selections. The 1,360 milligrams of sodium are slightly more than half of what you should have in a day, but the 45 grams of protein are a substantial serving that may help you make a more informed decision when perusing the menu.

Grilled chicken Margherita

For fresh chicken selections that help you keep your eating on the healthier side, Olive Garden's grilled chicken Margherita is a solid option. Even the name sounds like a party, though this plate doesn't come with a tangy lime cocktail to tip the nutritional scale out of whack! Grilled chicken is usually a wise move at an Italian restaurant, though this version comes topped with mozzarella and brushed with just enough pesto to provide a tangy Mediterranean flavor. It comes surrounded by steamed broccoli and cherry tomatoes, making this Margherita a dream for lighter diners to slice into.

This pretty plate comes with 650 calories and 39 grams of fat, though the whopping 65 grams of protein that come along for the ride help keep the fat in perspective. Holding off on the mozzarella and pesto should increase the benefits, something to check into with your server before choosing. The 2,120-milligram sodium count is also higher than preferred, though splitting this into two meals can help curb that. Better yet, since the order comes with two chicken filets, you can easily share the plate to reduce your consumption while still enjoying something fun and festive with friends or family.

6-ounce Tuscan sirloin

Having a sirloin steak show up as a nutritious option at Olive Garden may have been one of the most unexpected twists we found. This petite yet satisfying sirloin comes with sensible broccoli florets steamed until tender and topped with Parmesan, an accompaniment that doesn't detract from the flavor or the nourishment provided by the entrée. Of course, there's a more decadent version of this steak that comes with fettucine Alfredo on the side. But that platter is not the one you should be ordering if nutrition is part of your personal menu. Check out the gluten-sensitive region of the menu to find the better option.

How stunning are the figures on this mouthwatering meal? Only about 480 calories and 46 grams of protein stunning! The 30 grams of fat and 1,680 milligrams of sodium add a bit of complication to that, but we're looking for the most nutritious dishes at Olive Garden; it's not a health-food restaurant, and there won't be a perfect dish that dials all the recommended daily allowances in perfectly. Requesting the kitchen to hold off on the garlic butter sauce on the steak should bring the fat content down. But this protein-packed slice and its neighboring cruciferous crusaders represent one of your most primo possibilities for eating out without sliding downhill. Keto and paleo eaters should find this one especially attractive!

Cheese ravioli with marinara

Who would have expected to find cheese ravioli with marinara sauce on a list of nutritious Olive Garden dishes? The plate arrives looking incredibly decadent, with about a half-dozen round, pillowy ravioli wearing their finest red sauce and a lacy crown of melted mozzarella. Meat sauce is available as a substitute for guests who need a toothier sauce, though that option raises the calorie, fat, and other levels by a noteworthy amount. Sticking with the marinara lets you delight in a wonder of European food craft without adding challenges to your nutrient tracking.  

Though flagging your server for this sumptuous dish will bring you 2,370 milligrams of sodium, 38 grams of fat, and 125 milligrams of cholesterol, the 750 calories and 41 grams of protein qualify it as one of the more nutritious choices you can make. Keeping the lens aimed toward marinara rather than going for the meat sauce option provides a more pleasing set of nutrition facts, something to bear in mind when choosing. And if you bring along a friend who can split it with you, the math works even more in your favor. You can even ask for a take-out box when placing your order and save half of your meal for later to further reduce the nutrition counts.

Rotini pasta with marinara

Anyone watching their gluten intake can rest easily at Olive Garden. Despite the abundance of gluten-heavy pasta and bread products, the menu also includes a gluten-sensitive section with a very nutritious and enjoyable rotini pasta with marinara sauce plate. Olive Garden's description of "gluten sensitive" allows for gluten-free pasta, though other ingredients are not independently analyzed by the restaurant to ensure the elements meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's requirements for gluten-free food. Diners with gluten restrictions should be informed before ordering to make the best decisions for their requirements.

A round of rotini serves up an incredibly decent 530 calories and only 12 grams of fat, one of the lowest we found. The sodium is pretty far up the scale, hovering at 1,530 milligrams, and the 13 grams of protein are practically nominal. Still, it's a nourishing platter that reminds you just how delicious Italian cuisine can be, even when served in fast-casual fashion. If you're hanging with friends and you just want something delicious that doesn't challenge your gluten sensibilities or your overall nutritional standards, this assemblage of pasta and sauce is here to help you feel good about your decision.

Chicken parmigiana

Filled with protein and smothered with indulgent Parmesan, chicken parmigiana is a bona-fide Italian comfort meal that fits our nutrition requirements when ordered as a lunch selection. It seems unlikely that breaded chicken on pasta can provide a healthful meal filled with flavor. Somehow, Olive Garden has worked a little culinary magic with this fabulous favorite, turning out an entrée that does its heritage proud. It's a tasty trick that shouldn't go unnoticed if your goal is to get in and get out without eating more than you bargained for. Be nice to your server, and you might wrangle the lunch portion as a dinner order.

For this platter, a single chicken parmigiana filet accompanied by a side of spaghetti with marinara will afford diners 630 calories, a total we were pleasantly surprised to discover. With 29 grams of fat and 75 milligrams of cholesterol as part of the recipe, this dish is well below the daily allowance of between 44 and 78 grams of fat and less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol. It's true that the sodium count is 1,970 milligrams, just under the 2,000 milligrams recommended daily. With a bit of temperance in the rest of your consumption, you can plan to enjoy a functional feast that's one of the more lavish on the menu.

Vegetarians can change up their order to eggplant parmigiana and add only 30 calories and 3 fat grams to the nutrition bill, while bringing sodium down to 1,540 milligrams.

Lasagna classico

With so many luscious layers to indulge in, lasagna seems like a sneaky dish to make the list. Credit the lunch menu for providing a smaller portion that adheres to our criteria. Thanks to the reduction in size, lasagna classico provides an Italian stack of silken pasta, rich meat sauce, and glorious cheese as a top pick from the lunch menu for diners keeping their eyes sharply focused on the nutrition facts. It may not be the overpowering slice you're used to, but that's a good thing. Sensible eating often takes the form of less food on the plate, which keeps you from depriving yourself of fantastic bites.

Order a dish of lasagna classico, and you'll receive a squared-off 500 calories that carry along 30 grams of fat, 105 milligrams of cholesterol, and 1,290 milligrams of sodium. Remember: It's still lasagna. It won't have the nutritional profile of a salad or a plate of steamed vegetables. But it's a much more practical opportunity to enjoy a special meal without feeling like you have to go all-in for a far more tempting option. And don't forget the protein on the platter, a respectable 29 grams mingling among the saucy goodness.

How we determined which Olive Garden dishes were most nutritious

We scanned the nutrition facts guide provided by Olive Garden and homed in on the dishes with the lowest calorie counts. This is generally a solid indicator of what the other aspects will be as well, though some calorie counts differed from what was shown on the menu. Then, we dialed in the fat, sodium, and cholesterol totals, looking for the most favorable counts within the calorie-qualifying selections. Considering a day's worth of eating as three meals, we decided the optimal calorie count for a single meal in a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet would be under 1,000 calories, preferably between 500 and 750, though some were under 500 calories.

To add back in a nutritional punch, we then double-checked our selections to find out how much protein was packed into each one, since this essential nutrient can often balance out some of the less desirable aspects of a restaurant dish. Even when calories and fat were low and protein was relatively high, it was almost impossible to find a dish that didn't bring half a day's recommended value of sodium or more; this seems to be an inherent quality in Olive Garden dining that guests should definitely keep in mind when ordering what are otherwise nutritionally smart selections. In instances where lunch or dinner portions are available, the lunch portion was chosen for its more favorable profile. Some dishes also require ordering additional soup or salad, which will alter the nutritional layout.