Do your homework before dining out

Dec. 04, 2012 @ 03:00 PM

A special anniversary, a coupon for a free second entree and two friends who consider it one of their go-to Italian places got me into Cary’s Carrabba’s Italian Grill for the first time.
Following my lean rule of never going to a restaurant without first checking out its menu’s nutrition information, I zipped over to the restaurant’s website and printed out what turned out to be six information-filled pages. My last-minute dining decision made perusing that packet and making my selection before heading out virtually impossible, so I gave them a quick glance and zipped out.
Once seated, I gave the pages a second look and noticed the sodium column. Right away the antipasti plates got my attention. The least amount of sodium in this section went to Bruschette Carrabba with 2,769 milligrams.
There’s a heavy hand with the salt shaker somewhere in the kitchen since the highest antipasti plate, Brucschette Siciliani, comes with a grand 3,471 milligrams (1½ teaspoons salt). The low-salt winner in the appetizer category is Tomato Caprese salad at 387 milligrams.
Table conversation distracted me from looking at the soups’ sodium, so I went with Sausage and Lentil. That turned out to be a mistake, since my first taste was so salty I sent it back. Belatedly checking the analysis showed my choice as the saltiest, coming in with 2,365 milligrams (more than a teaspoon) per bowl. I ended up with the vegetable-stocked Minestrone with 1,000 milligrams less. Tuscan Strawberry Salad with Light Balsamic Vinaigrette is the best choice for a salad course; it’s lower in sodium (338 mg) and low in fat (7 g). That’s a bargain compared to the Italian Cobb Salad with Shrimp with its 47 fat grams and almost a day’s worth of sodium.
The best low-sodium and low-fat option from the wood burning grill is the small grilled chicken with 539 sodium milligrams and just 4 fat grams. The small grilled salmon is just as low in sodium but delivers five times the fat.
Pasta Sozanza with Shrimp is no shrimp when it comes to sodium at 3,339 milligrams (almost 1½ teaspoons). Spaghetti Pomodoro, although the plainest pasta dish, looks much better with 1,205 milligrams sodium and a mere 6 fat grams. If you’re watching your fat, steer clear of the Pasta Weesie, since there’s nothing wee about its 89 fat grams.
There’s a good selection of veggies available for sides, but you’ll still need to pick and choose carefully. The high sodium award for veggies goes to Roasted Primavera Vegetables at 2,199 milligrams. Go with the Grilled Vegetables for the best balance between fat and sodium with a stingy 5 fat grams and 368 milligrams sodium. Sauteed Broccoli and Cauliflower at 295 milligrams sodium would be my “go to” low-sodium choice if it wasn’t also the highest in fat at 31 grams.
If you’ve got room, consider splitting the lowest fat and lowest calorie dessert: Dessert Rosa (butter cake topped with pastry cream and fruit) at 575 calories, 22 fat grams and 340 milligrams sodium.
The Internet delivered solid nutritional information and helped me safely wend my way through the high sodium, high fat and calorie diet destroyers at the restaurant and still dine on a fairly healthy meal.
Don Mauer’s “Lean and Lovin’ It” column appears every other Wednesday. Don welcomes comments, suggestions and recipe makeover requests at
Try this recipe: If I made you hungry for pasta, consider my seasonal take on macaroni and cheese. Adding pureed pumpkin gives the dish earthy flavor notes and pumps up the fiber making this mac and cheese nearly a health food.

Pumpkin Macaroni and Cheese

1 pound higher fiber, macaroni pasta (such as Barilla PLUS)
3/4 cup 1 percent milk
1 can (12 ounces) fat-free evaporated milk
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard, dissolved in 2 teaspoons water
2 tablespoons all-purpose, unbleached flour
8 ounces Velveeta Light reduced-fat, processed cheese
4 ounces reduced-fat, sharp cheddar cheese
1/3 cup 1-percent cottage cheese (not Light n’ Lively brand)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup nonfat sour cream
1 cup canned pumpkin purée

In a large pot, bring 6 quarts of cold water to a boil over high heat. Add 1 generous tablespoon of kosher salt (or 1 1/2 generous teaspoons table salt) to the water and stir until dissolved. When the water comes to a rolling boil, add the macaroni pasta and stir until the water returns to a boil. Reduce the heat to keep the pot from boiling over and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8-10 minutes, or until the macaroni is tender. Drain well, do not rinse, and return to the pan.
While the macaroni cooks, add milk, evaporated milk, mustard paste and flour to a 2-quart saucepan. With a wire whisk, whisk together until combined. Place the saucepan over medium heat, and while stirring bring almost to a simmer. Add the three cheeses; season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and stir until the cheese melts. Stir in sour cream and pumpkin purée until incorporated, and remove the pan from the heat.
Pour sauce over the drained macaroni and, over medium-low heat, stir together until heated through and combined, about 1 minute. Serves eight; 1 1/2-cup servings.
Cook’s note: This will seem a little soupy when assembled, but thickens as it rests before serving.
Nutrition values per serving: 395 calories (15 percent from fat), 7 g fat (3.7 g saturated), 58.4 g carbohydrates, 4.9 g fiber, 22.4 g protein, 14 mg cholesterol, 801 mg sodium.
SaltSense: Omitting the added salt reduces the sodium per serving to 668 mg.