For the past 12 years – ever since I graduated from high school and moved several states away to attend college – my parents have had a weekly routine when it comes to eating out. Monday nights you’d find them eating soup and sandwiches at Panera; Wednesday evenings, they’d head to a cozy family-owned restaurant after their weightlifting class at the health club; Thursday nights my mom would often pick up pizza on the way home; Saturday morning they’d be at their favorite diner for breakfast with friends, only to head out to a fancier meal that evening for dinner.

That all changed three months ago.

The Catalyst

My dad was undergoing routine pre-operative testing for surgery on an abdominal aortic aneurysm when a heart catheterization discovered a blockage in one of his arteries. Actually, it wasn’t just one blockage – it was four. Instead of going in the next week for vascular surgery, my dad was immediately rerouted to the cardiac surgery department for emergency surgery. As he rested in recovery, his cardiologist showed up at his bedside with a cardiac nutritionist. Together, they explained to my father that he had to completely relearn how to manage his diet.

Gone were the days of ordering what he wanted off menus. Gone were the days of mindlessly choosing his meals without examining their fat and, particularly, their sodium content. Gone were the days of dining out – at least for a little while.

The Advice

My dad’s nutritionist recommended my dad focus on his sodium intake. The average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium a day, according to the Mayo Clinic. My dad wasn’t keeping strict tabs on his sodium intake, but estimated that he was getting close to the daily recommended intake of 2,300 mg – he thought he was doing enough. Turns out, once a person hits their 50s, or has health conditions like high blood pressure (which my dad did pre-surgery), that allowance should be slashed to 1,500 mg daily. The nutritionist gave my dad a daily target of 1,300 mg of sodium.

Sodium Intake and Dining Out

Ever wondered exactly how much sodium is in what you eat? It’s more than you think. Take, for example, the McDonald’s menu. Want to order a medium fry and a double cheeseburger? You’ll be ingesting 1420 mg of sodium – that’s 120 mg more than my dad’s nutritionist recommended for his diet. Even for a healthy person, that’s still more than half of the sodium intake recommended for an entire day – in just a single meal! And so-called healthier menu options aren’t always better. At McDonald’s, you can get a Premium Southwest Salad and get only 150 mg of sodium – but add chicken to that, and you’ll boost your sodium intake to 850 mg. Not so healthy, is it?

My dad quickly started examining the meals offered at his favorite restaurants, and soon realized there weren’t a whole lot of healthy menu options. Many of the local, family-owned restaurants didn’t provide nutritional data in the first place, forcing my dad to have some rather uncomfortable conversations with waitresses and cooks before placing his order. The larger chains – places like Fridays and Ruby Tuesdays – did have nutritional data, but it wasn’t what my dad wanted to see. His favorite meal at Cracker Barrel had more than 1,000 mg of sodium, making it virtually impossible for him to order it.

Finding Healthy Menu Options

My parents ultimately decided that they would find a way to manage my dad’s new diet while still dining out – after all, it’s one of the few luxuries these notorious tightwads allow themselves. However, that meant shaking up their restaurant choices. Out were the old family-style diners. Instead, they started searching for healthy restaurants – places where healthy menu options weren’t the exception, but the rule – as well as national chains that promoted healthy meals and provided clear dietary information.

One of the first places they hit up wasn’t a restaurant at all, but a website. My parents had never really paid attention to which restaurants were healthy and which weren’t, so they headed to Healthy Dining Finder. Simply by plugging in their zip code, they were able to learn which chain restaurants in their area offered healthy menu options, and outline exactly what those items are. Healthy Dining Finder also includes a category called “Sodium Savvy” in its search results; Sodium Savvy menu items must have less than 750 mg – a number my father was comfortable with for his “splurge” meal of the day.

Another site my parents started frequenting was Happy Cow. This site provided my parents with a list of healthy restaurants that offered vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and organic menu items. My parents found this site to be far more useful for finding locally-owned and operated restaurants that provided healthy menu options my dad could eat. They also discovered Good Food Near You, which is available online and through Apple as an application for its iPhone. The online version allowed my parents to search for restaurants and meals based on calories, fat content, protein content, and carb content. The cost of the app – and the online site – is absolutely free.

Which resources and restaurants do you frequent to help you find healthy restaurants and menu options?

Libby Balke

Libby Balke