In Calorie Counts on Menus, Menu labeling, Nutritional Information

Creating Healthier Recipes for Your Menu by Understanding Calorie Counts 

The consumer demand for healthier menu items has hit the restaurant industry like a tidal wave. And with the FDA regulation requiring food establishments with over 20 locations to place the calorie counts next to each item listed on their menus, dining out has become an educational experience for not only the patron, but the chef. 

Prior to the regulation release, creating recipes for a restaurant menu was more about flavor and pleasing the patron’s taste buds than counting calories and being aware of the macronutrient counts in one’s recipes. Now, the game has changed and it has both the consumer audience and the restaurant owners wondering the same thing: How can these recipes have so many calories? 

The answer is more of a nutrition lesson on caloric density than anything. Boring? Maybe. Worth noting? Absolutely. So students, grab your notebooks and your favorite pen, because class is in session. 

Macro and micronutrients are the foundation for calorie counts.

Understanding Calories

As we know, nearly every food that we consume has a caloric value assigned to it. But where do these numbers come from? 

It’s not likely that you’re familiar with the word macronutrient, or micronutrient for that matter, well, unless you’re a dietitian. (I’m counting on the probability that you’re not, but if you are, feel free to skip ahead.) For the rest of us food professionals, these very scientific sounding terms can be a bit confusing. The word “macro” originates from the greek language and means “large”. The “nutrient” part of this word is self-explanatory. So when referring to the nutrition information for a menu item, what are considered “large nutrients”? Macronutrients are simply fat, carbohydrates and proteins. They are the 3 main nutritional components to every food you will ever encounter. 

What you may not know, is that each macronutrient, is assigned their own caloric value: 

1 gram of Fat = 9 calories

1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories

1 gram of protein = 4 calories

For the number of calories of an entree to be calculated, the amount of macronutrients must be considered. If we take a menu item that has 20 grams of fat, 70 grams of carbohydrate and 30 grams of protein the number of calories in this meal would tally up to 670. How do we get this number? 

20 grams of fat x 9 calories per gram = 180 calories from fat

70 grams of carbohydrate x 4 calories per gram = 280 calories from carbohydrate

30 grams of protein x 4 calories per gram= 210 calories from protein

Add these values together and you have 670 as the number of calories for this menu item.

Olive oil, a monounsaturated fat, is heart healthy but packs a whopping 126 calories per tablespoon.

“Hidden Calories” in Healthy Foods

 As a chef or restaurant owner, you may not be aware but some of the most calorically dense foods are, in fact, healthy. You don’t have to be frying your foods in butter to make the calorie counts climb in your entrees

Olive oil, for example, is a healthy fat that is packed with monounsaturated fatty acids that are wonderful for heart health. But it is also very calorically dense by nature. One tbsp of olive oil has approximately 14 g of fat, which is about 126 calories. So if you are creating a pasta dish that is packed with vegetables and a lean meat like chicken or shrimp but requires 3 tbsp of olive oil for your garlic aioli, your dish is already up to nearly 400 calories from the olive oil alone. By the time the calorie counts for the carbohydrates and proteins are accounted for, the dish is nearing (if not over) 1000 calories. Can you believe it? 

Whole grains are another nutritious macronutrient that are quite the shocker in regards to calorie information. Keeping in line with our pretend pasta dish, 2 ounces of whole wheat penne pasta contains 200 calories. That’s 1 cup of cooked pasta. One. Menu items containing pasta tend to be large by nature. So, in our pasta entree example, let’s assume there are 4 cups of pasta to a single dish, that is an additional 800 calories to the 378 calories coming from the olive oil. Not convinced? Hold out your hand. Now make a fist. A fist has been used by dietitians and other nutrition professionals as a guidance tool in teaching serving size for decades. The size of your fist is approximately 1 cup of pasta. 

But it’s whole grain! It’s healthy! How can this be? 

What makes whole grain pasta healthy is that the parts of the wheat that lend the healthy components to the pasta like fiber, protein and a handful of vitamins and minerals hasn’t been lost in processing. So, when the body breaks this type of carbohydrate down, it is able to derive nutrients that are not found in traditional pasta made with all purpose bleached flour. But the caloric values are still dense. Whole grain is a great option for nutrition and health but when eaten in excess, the negative impact on overall caloric intake still remains. 

With this in mind, how do you create menu items that are still full of flavor while reducing the calorie count? Well, there are a few answers to that question. 

There are multiple ways that you can lower the calorie counts on your menu items to appeal to a health conscious customer.

Reducing Serving Size

The typical restaurant entree usually contains enough food for 2 or more people. In regards to calorie counts on menu items, sometimes less is more. By reducing the portion size of your pasta dishes and other grain-heavy offerings on your menu, you can easily reduce the overall number of calories in your dish. 

If you’re worried that it may not seem like “enough” for a customer, there are ways to “bulk up” your dish without impacting the calorie count. 

Non-starchy Vegetables

Vegetables are typically a wonderful addition to any dish which will increase the size of your entree but will not impact the overall number of calories in your recipe. Nutritionally dense and colorful by nature, vegetables pack a lot of flavor and are visually appealing. Reducing the amount of pasta by 1/3 in a grain-forward dish and replacing with an assortment of vegetables can bring the calorie count of your dish down by over 250 calories. 

Plate Size

It has been a general rule of thumb for most “calorie counters” that the same serving size, served on a smaller plate, appears larger. By reducing the container or plate size that your menu item is served in, you can easily cut calories from any dish without the patron feeling as if they are missing out. The old adage might just be true, “the eyes are bigger than the stomach.” 


But, What About Flavor?

This has to be the most prevalent question for any chef wondering how to comply with these new calorie count regulations without losing the rich taste of an entree. Flavor profiles can come from an array of areas: from fats to herbs, understanding the origins of what makes a dish delectable to a patron is of the utmost importance. 


If an entree is in need of a caloric reduction trading some of the fat content for a savory herb can be a realistic exchange. If we can refer to our pasta dish one last time, it contained 3 tbsp or nearly 400 calories in the garlic aioli sauce correct? 

If we take the same garlic aioli and reduce the olive oil content by half and add in basil, the caloric value of the dish is then reduced by 21g of fat or 189 calories. Then if we exchange 1/3 of the pasta for a leafy vegetable like spinach and some onion to add bulk, we are further reducing the caloric value of this entree by another nearly 300 calories. 

Serve that dish up on a smaller plate and you have a nutritious reduced-calorie option in a realistic serving size for your customer without compromising flavor. 

In the world of nutrition information, math rules. If you can learn how to manipulate the numbers to fit the flavor profiles that you are seeking for your menu items, you have mastered the game. 

Need help with mastering your menu items? MenuCalc is the industry leading nutrition analysis software for menu labeling. Contact us to start creating healthier entrees for your menu today.

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