Soups and Salads: What You Don’t Know Is Costing and Killing You

As a waiter at corporate restaurants for the better part of a decade, I’ve been trained that the customer is always right.

But not, apparently, when it comes to ordering soup and salad.

Earlier this month, a new study declared that more Americans than ever are ordering soups and salads when they go out to eat. Technomic, a food industry consulting group, found that “nearly half of consumers now order salad all or most of the time compared to 34 percent” a year ago.

Why? “Consumers seek light, healthy and affordable fare.” But I know for a fact that soups and salads at many restaurants are neither cheap nor healthy.

As a waiter, I know that salad dressings are filled with lots of sugar – because I’ve seen them being made. I know what’s in the soup too. Here are three big lessons I’ve learned over the years.

1. Salad isn’t always healthy

In fact, salad is almost never healthy. Check out these numbers from T.G.I. Friday’s own nutritional fact sheet…

  • Pecan-Crusted Chicken Salad: 1,100 calories (71 grams total fat)
  • Chipotle Yucatan Chicken Salad: 850 calories (60 grams total fat)
  • Caribbean Passion Tossed Salad: 840 calories (46 grams total fat)

If you’re trying to save calories and fat grams, you might as well chow down on T.G.I. Friday’s Half-Rack of Baby Back Ribs – because it has 860 calories (48 grams of fat).

Of course, what makes salad so calorie-costly is the dressing. And that’s where customers are contradictory.

“A strong majority (64 percent) of consumers believe that dressings are a key component, if not the key component of a tasty salad,” Technomic says. But the company adds, “76 percent of consumers who are purchasing salads more often say they’re seeking a healthier option and 49 percent want something lighter.”

Sticking with the T.G.I. Friday’s example, here’s what a mere 3 ounces of extra dressing will do to your waistline…

  • Bleu Cheese: 490 calories
  • Honey Mustard: 470 calories
  • Balsamic Vinaigrette: 450 calories

So what can you do? First, before you order, ask if there’s a low-fat or low-sugar dressing available. Second, do what I’ve seen other skinny patrons do: Get the dressing on the side – but don’t toss it into the salad. Instead, dip your fork into it and then stab the vegetables.

2. Soups aren’t always light

Some soups can’t be treated like appetizers if you’re trying to eat healthy. Check out these numbers from Applebee’s

Bad bowls (cream-based)

  • Baked Potato Soup: 470 calories
  • Chili: 420 calories
  • Broccoli Cheddar Soup: 380 calories

Better bowls (broth-based)

  • Chicken Noodle Soup: 150 calories
  • Tomato Basil Soup: 260 calories

The advice here is obvious: Choose broth-based soups over cream-based. (They also tend to be lower in saturated fats.) And ask your waiter for advice. Where I worked, the only food we were allowed to eat for free was the soup – which meant we knew those soups inside and out, both in terms of taste and health.

3. Soups and salads are not cheap

It’s a simple restaurant trick…

The appetizers – soups and salads included – are listed at the beginning of the menu and cost much less than the entrees. Which means they’re a great value, right?

Think again. Since the salads are mostly composed of cheap vegetables and even cheaper dressing, the mark-up on them is huge. In fact, a kitchen manager explained to me that the restaurant’s biggest profit is on soups and salads.

I thought the steaks would make the most money. They sold for upwards of $30 where I worked. But I didn’t realize that, at least the places where I’ve worked, those steaks cost the restaurant only a few dollars less than what they sell them for. Trying to wring more profit form a costly steak could mean pricing it out of your customers’ range.

Why do corporate restaurants carry steaks, then, if the profits are so low? In my experience, it’s because for every one person in a party of five who buys a steak, the other four are buying soups and salads. And that more than makes up for it.

For more, check out what Karla Bowsher from Money Talks News’ Deals page already wrote about what’s important to know when you’re going out to eat.

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