America's Best—and Worst!—Family Restaurants

When it comes to making smart choices for your family, the most important decisions you'll face aren't about which TV shows to let them watch, which college-savings programs to enroll in, or even which toys to let them play with. The most important decision for your family: What are you going to eat tonight?

Just ask Erika Bowen. At age 29, she and her husband were trying to start a family. But heErika Bowen before and afterr doctors told her there was a problem—at 250 pounds, her obesity problem was interfering with her fertility! Then she discovered Eat This, Not That!, and started looking more carefully at restaurant menus—ordering healthier versions of her favorite foods, and eating at the restaurants that offered the smartest choices. 

Erika didn't go on a diet—she didn't have to! Over the next 17 months, she lost 84 pounds, just by making smart swaps; today, her weight is no longer a barrier to her dream life. "I feel like I've always wanted to feel," she says. "Other people are finally seeing me the way I've always seen myself." Look right to see before and after pictures of Erika's transformation.

Of course, eating smart means knowing where the hidden calories are lurking, and which restaurants offer the best choices. That's why we compiled an authoritative list of The Best and Worst Family Restaurants in America. Find out where your favorite joint ranks, and get ready to upgrade your meals—and downsize your belly!

The WORST Family Restaurants in America
Second runner up . . .
We knew IHOP was up to no good when it refused to reveal its nutritional information back when we first asked in 2007. But we were shocked when a New York City law forced them to post calorie counts: 1,000-calorie crepes, 1,200-calorie breakfast combos, and 1,250-calorie burgers. The company has finally decided to release full nutritional information on its web site, which bumped its F grade (for non-disclosure) up only to a measly D.

Bonus tip: Breakfast restaurants, like IHOP, are almost universally nutritional black holes. Check out 12 shockingly horrible breakfasts to see what we mean.

Survival Strategy: You’ll have a hard time finding a regular breakfast with fewer than 700 calories, and a lunch or dinner with fewer than 1,000 calories. Your only safe bet is to stick to the Simple & Fit menu, where you’ll find the nutritional content for a small selection of much healthier items.

IHOP Spinach and Mushroom OmeletteDon't Eat That! (pictured right)
Spinach and Mushroom Omelette (no pancakes on the side)
910 calories
71 g fat (26 g saturated, 1 g trans)
1,580 mg sodium

Eat This Instead!
Two x Two x Two (with bacon)
640 calories
37 g fat (13 g saturated, 0.5 g trans)
1,580 mg sodium

First runner up . . .
We salute Friday’s for its smaller-portions menu; the option to order reduced-sized servings ought to be the new model, dethroning the bigger-is-better principle that dominates chain restaurants. But Friday’s still refuses to provide nutritional info, and our research shows why: The menu is awash in atrocious appetizers, frightening salads, and entrees with embarrassingly high calorie counts.

Survival Strategy: Danger is lurking in every crack and corner of Friday’s menu. In fact, there are only four entrees with fewer than 800 calories on the menu! Your best bets? The 400-calorie Shrimp Key West, the 480-calorie Dragonfire Chicken, or finding another restaurant entirely.

Friday's SantaFe ChoppedDon't Eat That! (pictured right)
Santa Fe Chopped Salad
1,800 calories

Eat This Instead!
Cobb Salad
361 calories

No restaurant chain exemplifies America’s portion problem more than Cheesecake Factory. Aside from a couple of salads, the leanest regular dinner item is a hulking cheeseburger called The Factory Burger, which delivers the same number of calories as a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese from McDonald’s. That’s the leanest! And it gets worse from there. The average liability for a full-sized sandwich is nearly 1,500 calories, and the average pasta clocks in at 1,865.

But doesn’t Cheesecake Factory have a healthy menu like Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday? Sure they do. Of the more than 200 items on Cheesecake Factory’s menu, you’ll find a measly four spotlighted as “healthy” entrees. Three of the four are salads, and you’ll recognize them by the phrase “Weight Management” printed on the menu. Who wants to order that?

Survival Strategy: Your best bet is to turn your car around and head home for a meal made from ingredients like those on this year's 125 Best Foods list. Failing that, skip pasta, specialties, combos, and sandwiches at all costs. Split a pizza or a salad, or opt for the decent (relatively speaking) Factory Burger.

Cheesecake Factory Grilled Turkey BurgerNot That! (pictured right)
Grilled Turkey Burger
1,200 calories
27 g saturated fat
1,544 mg sodium

Eat This Instead!
The Factory Burger
730 calories
15 g saturated fat
1,016 mg sodium

The BEST Family Restaurants in America
Second runner up . . .
After years of stonewalling health-conscious eaters and Eat This, Not That! authors alike, Applebee’s has finally released the nutritional numbers for its entire menu. Unfortunately, we now see why they were so reluctant to relinquish them in the first place: the 1,700-calorie Riblets Platter, the 1,310-calorie Oriental Chicken Salad, and the 2,510-calorie Appetizer Sampler. The one bright spot is the new Under 550 Calories menu.

Survival Strategy: Skip the meal-wrecking appetizers, pastas, and fajitas, and be very careful with salads, too; half of them pack more than 1,000 calories with dressing. (Shocked by that stat? Take a look at this list of 20 Salads Worse Than a Whopper to see just how bad some restaurant salads can be.) Instead, concentrate on the excellent line of lean steak entrees, or anything from the laudable 550-calorie-or-less menu.

Chicken Fajita RollupDon't Eat That! (pictured right)
Chicken Fajita Rollup
1,040 calories
60 g fat (29 g saturated, 1 g trans)
3,280 mg sodium

Eat This Instead!
Grilled Dijon Chicken
450 calories
16 g fat (6 g saturated)
1,810 mg sodium

First runner up . . .
Before now, Macaroni Grill had never done better than a D on our report card, but an aggressive campaign to overhaul its entire menu has resulted in the most dramatic nutritional about-face we’ve ever witnessed. A handful of duds remain, but the majority of pastas, salads, and entrees have shed hundreds of calories or more, making Mac Grill one of the country’s best sit-down restaurants.

Survival Strategy: Besides a few outliers (pizza, pork chops, Mama’s Trio, cheesecake), this menu is relatively safe. Choose a spiedini, grilled salmon or chicken, or a pasta sans sausage or cream sauce and you’ll have enough caloric wiggle room to end the meal with a bowl of vanilla gelato. (For more great tips like these, sign up for the Eat This, Not That! newsletter—free to your inbox every morning. Also be sure to follow me right here on Twitter for up-to-the-second diet and weight loss tips every single day!)

Romano's Macaroni Grill Calabrese Strip with roasted potatoesDon't Eat That! (pictured right)
Calabrese Strip with roasted potatoes and grape tomatoes
990 calories
23 g saturated fat
1,120 mg sodium

Eat This Instead!
Aged Beef Tenderloin Spiedini with roasted vegetables
410 calories
4 g saturated fat
620 mg sodium

Compared with the other major sit-down chains and their four-digit fare, Red Lobster looks like a paragon of sound nutrition. The daily rotating fish specials, ordered either blackened or grilled, are the centerpiece of a menu long on low-calorie, high-protein entrees and reasonable sides. For that, Red Lobster earns the distinction of being America’s healthiest chain restaurant. The only real trouble you’ll find is when the fryer is involved.

Survival Strategy: Don’t fall for the health halo that surrounds all things seafood. While fish can be good for you, the way it’s prepared can make an otherwise healthy dish sink. Here’s the key to eating well at Red Lobster: Avoid calorie-heavy Cajun sauces, combo dishes, and anything labeled “crispy.” And tell the waiter to keep those biscuits for himself. You’ll never go wrong with simple broiled or grilled fish and a vegetable side.

Red Lobster Parrot Isle Jumbo Coconut ShrimpDon't Eat That! (pictured right)
Parrot Isle Jumbo Coconut Shrimp with rice pilaf
1,160 calories
58 g fat (12.5 g saturated)
2,600 mg sodium

Eat This Instead!
Peach-Bourbon BBQ Shrimp and Scallops with broccoli
585 calories
27.5 g fat (4.5 g saturated)
1,640 mg sodium

To see the how all of your favorite family restaurant stacks up and get smart survival strategies at each, check out our our new Restaurant Report Card, straight from the latest book!


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