Secret Menus and Special Requests: Staying Healthy When Dining Out


By Crabby McSlacker

So it turns out many chain restaurants have "secret" or "hidden" menus--there's even  a blog called hack the menu devoted to describing items you can order that are not listed on the regular menu.

The problem? Almost all of these secret items are even more evil and poisonous than the usual craptastic chain offerings. They may make you feel more like a hip insider as you use the special secret passwords and score an exclusive treat--but the items themselves don't deserve any coverage on a healthy living blog. Even one as half-assed as Cranky Fitness.

There is one notable exception, however: Panera's Hidden Menu!

Wanna find out what happened on a recent Stealth Mission to check it out In Real Life?

Or, bored enough to hear some tips on how to get the healthier food you want in restaurants in general?

Let's get crackin'!


Panera's Hidden Menu


Panera secret menu

Panera is one of the healthier chains to begin with; The Lobster and I, when on the road, will often seek these out for lunch because they're pretty solid on their salad offerings.  And back in the days when I ate more bread, I appreciated their whole grain offerings.

But their breakfast menu isn't quite as great, especially if you tend to eat low carb. And I'm always looking for more healthy options to choose from for lunch. So it was intriguing to discover there is a whole hidden menu of breadless "power" bowls and salads that they weren't fessing up to!

And note: by "hidden menu," I mean a list of offerings so carefully concealed that they feature them on their website and they appeared on The View and all the items are already listed in MyFitnessPal and other databases. But anyway, it was "hidden" to me.

Here's the link for the Panera Hidden "Power" Menu -- these are bowls and salads that are a little easier on the sugar and other carbs and consist mostly of veggies and protein. However, it looks like they may not be available in Canada yet, damnit!

But it's one thing to know there's theoretically a "hidden" menu--what's it like to actually try to order something that's not listed on the big board behind the counter?  Will it piss off the hard-working folks who have to deal with you?

Nope!  At least not at the Hillcrest Panera in San Diego. Very approachable about "hidden" menu items, yay!


So I ordered the Egg White Bowl with Turkey; 170 calories, 28 grams protein:

Website Food-Porn Version

Blurry Real Life Camera-Phone Verson


Verdict: It was actually tasty!  Could have used more spinach, and the meat had that slightly funny flavor I notice (but the Lobster doesn't) in any reheated poultry, but the pesto and red bell peppers disguised that pretty well and gave it a nice flavor over all. I'd order it again and would try other stuff off their special menu.

But since not that many restaurants have Official Secret Menus, here are a few quick and obvious tips on:

How to Get The Healthier Food You Want at Restaurants Even if It's Not on the Menu

1.  Don't Act Like an Entitled Asshole When You Ask.  Seems like any moron would know this, but I've witnessed people who don't seem to appreciate that going off-menu is sometimes an annoyance, or that the server may not have control over the rules. A demanding and presumptuous tone and an outraged reaction to any hesitations the waitperson voices--that seems to me a poor way to go about negotiating. Yet this approach is surprisingly popular!

An apologetic, I-know-this-is-a-hassle-but-could-you-help-me attitude goes a long way towards (a) getting what you want and (b) ensuring no one has spit in your special request before they bring it to your table.

Special Exception: The Five Easy Pieces scenario.  In this case, you may wanna just go for it and make a scene and become iconic! Or possibly just get yourself incarcerated.




2.  But Don't Be Too Shy to Ask for Help!  Many people are too timid about even inquiring about substitutions, when often what they want is frequently requested and cheerfully accommodated.  Plus, bonus: you are not being obnoxious, you are doing a civic duty! Because every time you ask for a healthier substitution, you and others like you are paving the way for menu changes in the future.  Many common menu items now used to be pain-in-the-ass special requests a couple of decades ago because we healthy eaters spoke up and asked for something different.

3. Propose reasonable substitutions. Look at what's on the menu in other dishes so you know which ingredients are available. And offer to pay extra if appropriate.  Lean protein and fresh veggies, alas, cost much more than refined grains, fluffy carbs, sugar, cheap fatty meats etc. So to healthify a meal you may have to order something as an unofficial side order and pay for it.

4. Emphasize or Invent Medical Conditions. An allergy or medical disorder just sounds more sympathetic than "I'm on Atkins" or "My herbalist says I should avoid nightshade vegetables because it unbalances my qi." But again, even with the most compelling medical conditions, for best results stay slightly apologetic--even though obviously it isn't your fault. It's not the server's fault either and best if they're on your side.

5.  Sneak in your own additions.  The Lobster and I have been known to put apples or bananas in a coat pocket to supplement an on-the-road breakfast or lunch, and we have yet to be tossed out of an eating establishment.  However, use common sense: bringing in your own picnic banquet and just ordering ice tea off the menu might be frowned upon.

However, this list was compiled by someone who has never been a waitress or counter-person or a chef. There are probably all kinds of things I don't know about how to order that perhaps some more worldly Cranketeers can help with, so please fill me in.

Claimer: (Is that the opposite of Disclaimer?) I received no promotional items or compensation from Panera for this post.  But hell, I would totally accept free stuff or $$ if they want me to start pimping for them on a regular basis. Because every huge chain restaurant needs a foul-mouthed health blogger to spread the word, right! Hey Panera, have your people talk to my people, ok?

Do you guys feel free to order any darn thing you want when eating out, or do you pretty much stick to the menu?

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