Best and Worst Appetizers

Photo of an onion blossom.

WORST: Onion Blossom

It may be your waistline that blossoms if you're a fan of fried onions. The onion blossom at one popular restaurant has 1,950 calories, 155 grams (g) of fat, and 3,840 milligrams (mg) of sodium -- more than double the daily sodium limit for healthy adults.

Photo of a veggie kabob.

BEST: Vegetable Kabobs

Grilled vegetable kebabs are a great low-calorie alternative to fried onions. If this isn't on the menu, ask for a side of grilled vegetables as your appetizer. Veggie kabobs are also easy to make: Skewer onions, red and green bell peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, and zucchini. Brush with a lower-fat garlic and herb marinade. Two large kebabs will have about 75 calories.

Photo of spinach artichoke dip and tortilla chips.

WORST: Spinach Artichoke Dip

Don't let the word "spinach" fool you. Traditional spinach artichoke dip is not a healthy starter. A typical order has about 1,600 calories, 100 grams of fat, and 2,500 milligrams of sodium. The trouble is the cream base, which is loaded with saturated fat. If you make this dip at home, use a base of nonfat Greek yogurt instead.

Photo of spinach salad.

BEST: Spinach Salad

The best appetizers are low in calories, but satisfying enough to curb how much you eat during the rest of your meal. Salads made with spinach or other leafy greens do this very well. Studies suggest you'll eat about 10% less during a meal if you start off with salad. A cup of fresh spinach with a tablespoon of vinaigrette has about 80 calories.

Photo of cheese fries topped with scallions.

WORST: Cheese Fries

Cheese fries are french fries with melted cheese on top. Variations may include bacon bits or ranch dressing. A full order packs up to 2,000 calories, 134 grams of fat, and 2,800 milligrams of sodium, which is more sodium than you should eat in a whole day.

Photo of crab cakes.

BEST: Crab Cakes

Use appetizers to add healthy foods you might be eating too little of. Seared crab cakes -- pan fried, not deep fried -- offer an appealing way to get more seafood into your diet. Served with chili sauce, a typical crab cake has about 300 calories, 20 g of fat, and 960 mg sodium.

Photo of cheeseburger sliders.

WORST: Cheeseburger Sliders

They're small, but sliders pack in a lot of calories. A typical restaurant order includes three mini-burgers with cheese and sauce, totaling 1,270 calories, 82 g of fat, and 2,310 mg of sodium.

Photo of beef skewer.

BEST: Beef Skewers

When you're craving a meaty appetizer, opt for beef skewers. In Asian restaurants, this may be listed as beef satay: skewers of beef with peanut sauce. At home, you can grill skewers of lean beef with onions, garlic, and hoisin, soy, and barbecue sauces. A quarter-pound serving has about 130 calories, 5 g of fat, and 803 mg sodium.

Photo of loaded potato skins.

WORST: Loaded Potato Skins

Potato skins filled with melted cheese, meats, and sour cream are as fattening as they are tempting. At more than 150 calories a pop, the trick to enjoying these is to have just one. Devour a whole plateful, and you'll take in about 1,340 calories, 94 g of fat, and 1,850 mg of sodium.

Photo of stuffed mushrooms.

BEST: Stuffed Mushrooms

Stuffing mushrooms instead of potato skins helps keep the portion size down. Mushroom caps filled with cheese and breadcrumbs have less than 50 calories each. That means you can eat half a dozen and still keep your appetizer under 300 calories, along with 19 grams of fat, and 720 mg of sodium.

Photo of fried calamari.

WORST: Fried Calamari

Like many types of seafood, squid can be a good choice. But not when it's breaded, fried, and drenched in calories and fat. A typical restaurant portion contains about 900 calories, 54 g of fat, and 2,300 mg of sodium, not including any sauce.

Photo of shrimp cocktail.

BEST: Shrimp Cocktail

Shrimp cocktail is very low in saturated fat and calories. It's also a good source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. To keep the calorie count low, stick to tomato-based sauce. A serving of shrimp with cocktail sauce has about 140 calories.

Photo of clam chowder.

WORST: New England Clam Chowder

Clam chowder sounds like it should be healthy, especially as a way to take in some extra seafood. Unfortunately, the New England variety is made with a fattening cream base. A 12-ounce bowl has about 630 calories, 54 g of fat, and 890 mg of sodium.

Photo of tomato soup.

BEST: Vegetable Soup

Having a bowl of soup can curb how much you eat during the rest of the meal. The key is choosing a low-calorie option, such as a tomato-based vegetable soup. A 12-ounce bowl has about 160 calories, 3.5 grams of fat, and 1,240 mg sodium. Stay away from cream-based vegetable soups, which are higher in calories and saturated fats. When buying canned soup, look for those marked "low in sodium."

Photo of chicken wings

WORST: Chicken Wings

A typical appetizer portion of buffalo chicken wings has more than 700 calories and 40 g of fat. Ranch sauce adds another 200 calories and 20 g of fat. That's 900 calories and 60 g of fat, plus more than 2,000 mg of sodium, before you even get to your main meal.

Photo of chicken lettuce wraps.

BEST: Lettuce Wraps

If you're craving spicy chicken, skip the wings and try lettuce wraps. You can make these at home by wrapping diced spicy chicken and vegetables in a lettuce leaf. Each wrap has 160 calories and 7 g of fat. If you order this appetizer at a restaurant, share them. A plate of four wraps has 640 calories, 28 g of fat, and 650 mg sodium.

Photo of fried mozzarella cheese sticks.

WORST: Mozzarella Sticks

There's something about a stick of warm, gooey cheese that's hard to resist, until you know the nutritional facts. A typical order has 930 calories, 48 g of fat, and 2,640 mg of sodium. That puts mozzarella sticks pretty much on par with chicken wings.

Photo of edamame.

BEST: Edamame

These green pods, known as edamame, are a popular appetizer in Asian restaurants. It's fun to open the pods and pop the young soybeans into your mouth. One serving has 122 calories and 5 grams of fat.

Photo of chili cheese nachos.

WORST: Chili Cheese Nachos

They may be a festive way to start an evening out, but nachos and cheese dip are among the least healthy appetizer choices. Eat an entire order yourself, and you'll take in 1,680 calories, 107 g of fat, and 4,270 mg of sodium, which may be nearly twice as much sodium as you should get in a day.

Photo of salsa and veggies.

BEST: Sliced Peppers with Salsa

For a homemade alternative to chips and dip, cut up red and green bell peppers, or other veggies, and use them like chips for dipping in salsa. This is a fun way to sneak more vegetables into your diet. You can dip a whole pepper's worth of "chips" and stay under 50 calories.



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  • Chili's: "Nutritional Menu."
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  • Outback Steakhouse: "Nutritional Information."
  • P.F. Chang's: "Nutritional Information."
  • Panera Bread: "Nutrition Calculator."
  • Red Lobster: "Nutrition Facts."
  • Ruby Tuesday: "Nutritional Menu Guide - March 2012."
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Nutrient Database: "Edamame," "Sweet Red Pepper, Raw," "Salsa, Ready to Serve," "Beef, Flank, Lean," "Salad dressing, home recipe, vinegar and oil," "Spinach, raw."
  • USDA: "What's in the Foods You Eat: Shrimp Cocktail," "What's In the Foods You Eat: Tomato Soup."
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