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updated: 11/9/2012 7:39 AM

Lean and lovin' it: Ordering healthy when eating out not always easy

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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 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 (1 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 1 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 carefully pick and choose. 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.

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.

• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at don@theleanwizard.com.

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