March 24, 2014

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?

41 comments:

  1. When I was younger and really stupid shy, I wouldn't order anything that wasn't on the menu for fear of rocking the boat. Now that I'm older and no longer give a crap, I feel free to ask for substitutions that fit my macros better. I really do like your approach of being sweet to the servers about it, though. That has always worked for me, and I just appreciate the amount of crap they have to put up with from the entitled snappy-finger twits. Rock on, servers.

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    1. I used to be that way too. I hated to bother anyone. I almost stopped eating out entirely when I started eating vegan.

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    2. Heather & QD, somehow it doesn't surprise me that you guys wouldn't want to trouble anyone with a special request, but so glad you now are able to get the food you want when eating out!

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  2. I tend to order pretty much off the menu when I eat out. I don't have any special requirements and even if the food is a little "richer" than I might make it at home I feel like it's OK on occasion (we don't eat out very often). I have heard about the secret menu at Panera - might have to check it out sometime just to see what I might be missing!!

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    1. If you don't eat out very often Kim, and with all the exercise you do, I'd say go for the richer stuff you love!

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  3. I will occasionally tell the server not to bring the bread which accompanies a Caesar salad. If my husband is with me I don't bother as I know it will go to a good home.
    I will quiz the server mercilessly about ingredients before I choose, but I am sufficiently apologetic as I do it.
    If I ever find myself at Panera for breakfast I am totally having the steak and egg bowl.

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    1. Leah, that "hold the bread" is a great idea, one that I often forget. And then all of a sudden "gonna take the high road" turns into "just one piece" and it's all downhill from there. Sigh.

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  4. I always have to order last when eating out because I *NEVER* order straight from the menu - there are always changes. Hubster and the critters warn the server that I'm a PITA when it comes to ordering.

    I'm not rude at all, but if I'm paying for it, I figure I can get it the way I like it.

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    1. I try to go last too Lucky Mama for the very same reason!

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  5. Death Ride GrandmaMarch 24, 2014 at 12:45 PM

    I mostly stick to the menu, but I often seem to have to modify it a bit. I don't tolerate garlic very well at all (not an allergy, it just makes me feel really queasy), and it seems to be added to almost everything. I understand that - before I lost the ability to digest it, I loved it, too. But trying to get people to figure out whether or not I can eat something brings on a large range of reactions. They range from a manager who came over and insisted that the (very visible, very aromatic) garlic on my dish wasn't garlic to the waiter who, when I said it wasn't dangerous, wasn't an allergy said, "Well, the chef doesn't need to know that!" and made sure there was not the slightest trace anywhere near me. Mostly, servers are extremely helpful and eager to make things work out & make us want to come back.

    I don't really look for off-the-menu stuff since I don't really do a lot of counting of carbs/protein/fat. But it's nice for this picky eater to know there are often more options out there.

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    1. DRG, too funny about the garlic-denying manager! But glad your experience, like mine, has been mostly really positive when trying to navigate special requests.

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  6. Secret hidden menus.. whoddathunkit? I tend to order as seen on the menu but very often ask them to hold any bread or bun that might accompany the meal... unless I know it's especially yummy and homemade.

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    1. Another ambivalent bread holder! I think there must be a lot of us. Even with best of intentions sometimes I just can't help it and gotta go for it, especially the homemade stuff. And I don't hold the olive oil or butter either!

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  7. I have perfected the sweet, confused and overly sensitive lady look over the years. I can also add the look like I am am seconds away from tears. That's because I am sweet, confused and overly sensitive and really may blow up into tears like a ticking time bomb! Anyway I usually get what I want at restaurants and everybody is relieved.
    So far I have really scored at the airport where I have on more than one occasion not had to wait in line like those grouchy looking people. I just go up to an official and ask their advice on getting where I am going and suddenly I am getting VIP service.

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    1. I like it! I'll have to work on my "I've always relied on the kindness of strangers" method.The tears are a nice touch. Thanks for the tip. ;-)

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    2. I love this too Cindy--I think we need an instructional video, because your skills could be really really handy in all kinds of situations!

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    3. Death Ride GrandmaMarch 25, 2014 at 11:20 AM

      Perfect, Cindy! My young relative (who was, at the time, a feisty teen) was scheduled to go on a flight that was cancelled. She went back out to the line where they were scrambling to rebook everyone, saw how awful people were being to the agents, and went back to Starbucks to get them a treat. When her turn came and she handed over the treat, they 1) put her on the earliest possible flight, 2) bumped her to first class, 3) gave her a cockpit tour. Goes to show how few people get how valuable your sweet attitude is! But the people on the receiving end really appreciate it. Good for you!

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    4. I am more inclined to think it is the fear of the ticking time bomb called she looks like the type that is going to CRY!! OMG! RUN!
      I am always very polite but I have never thought to bring treats. That's an advanced level of sweetness.

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    5. Love that story DRG, and I agree with Cindy, that is definitely Expert level sweetness. But people are such butt-heads to the bearers of bad news, and get all blamey at the wrong folks when stuff happens, just because they're handy. I think just by not being a total ass and empathizing a little one can make the situation SO much less stressful.

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  8. By starting my order with a laugh and the words "this weirdo vegan will have..." i generally get a laugh and plenty of cooperation from servers or staff in cluing me in to what is available. A laugh at your own expense and a big tip, as well as a good attitude, go a long way toward getting it the way you want it.

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    1. "Weirdo vegan will have..." would make a great title for a book or movie messymimi! Whether a diet book or a romantic comedy I'm thinking. Glad it works so well!

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  9. "Would it be too much of a bother to…….?" And a smile and I usually get foods my way and a smile back. :)

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    1. Excellent strategy Sherri!

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  10. I am a Sally from when Harry met Sally - :) Lucky for restaurants that I almost always bring my own stuff. BUT this Panera thing looks good!!! I love their bread too! :) I try to be polite when I substitute & I do make up tummy issues so they think I have to do this. :)

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    1. Jody, good for you for bringing your own stuff! And I can't help but think of the "I'll have what she's having" scene from that movie, but I'm thinking the orgasm-faking scene was not the part you were talking about! Or who knows, maybe that would get results? :)

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  11. I've never heard of hidden menus, that's amazing! I'm always too nervous to ask for special things to be done to my food, never mind trying to ask about things that don't exist on the regular menu. It's madness, I say!

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    1. Give it a shot Courtney, it's amazing how much more flexible most restaurants can be than you'd think!

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  12. I usually just add a few tweaks such as extra well done, add spinach, etc. I've never been to Panera. Sounds yummy.

    I have worked as a waitress for a very short time. It was very hard. It was at Bob's Big Boy. I wish to God I had a photo of myself in that pitiful pinafore uniform. Sigh.

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    1. I wish you had that pinafore photo too Bob Ben!

      Guess it could have been worse though... Sees Candy? Hooters? :)

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  13. Getting over the fear of asking is the hard part. Most people and most restaurants are willing to help if at all possible.

    I have taken my own salad dressings into places!!!

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    1. I like the salad dressing idea MaryFran! Especially when we're traveling in our camper van and have it right inside our fridge sitting in the parking lot... hmm, gotta give that a shot sometime!

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  14. Delurking to say that because I DO have weird and unusual food allergies (egg, onion and garlic), I have to go in-depth in any food establishment about what I can and cannot have. I have always found waitstaff to be exceptionally willing to make sure I can have something. One nice young man in Florida actually went into the back after he brought me what we agreed I could have, and emerged to tell me in horror that not one of their salad dressings was safe for me. I already knew that, but I thought he was very sweet to check. I often say I am high-maintenance without wanting to be, because of my food limitations. Try adding any by-choice limits to that, and my restaurant adventures verge on the mythic.

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    1. Oh shoot Laura, mythic restaurant adventures due to food allergies rather than exquisite gourmet cooking doesn't sound fun! But glad that most waitstaff have been so helpful.

      And also so glad you delurked, great to meet you!!!

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  15. It is never a good idea to be rude on your waiter. You'll never know what you're gonna get. I'm not trying to scare anyone but I've heard a lot of stories about this.

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    1. Sounds like you've heard the same stories I have Jenn! Even in the unlikely event of a horrible waiter, probably best to save any criticism until AFTER the food is delivered.

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  16. I have so few food allergies compared to when i was younger, and I so seldom eat anything I haven't cooked, that I forget to ask about things. Fortunately, the menu usually mentions things like mushrooms, but barley in soups, for instance, can be an unpleasant surprise. I don't think I would be very good at asking for hidden menu offerings, as I find navigating the obvious menu painful and difficult.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

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    1. Stealth barley, never thought of that, though I'm glad to hear your food allergies have improved over the years Mary Anne! And yeah, the Hidden Menu thing sort of depends on scouting it out online first.

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  17. People always laugh at me because I hate peppers so a lot of times I will order something on the menu and ask that they leave the peppers out, and my friends always pick on me as if I'm asking for something so drastic.

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  18. I frequently "special" order at restaurants. I am very polite, yet precise about what I would like and have never had a problem. I am great tipper, so that probably helps.

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  19. Whenever I go out to eat, I always make my own meal, LOL. I am a paying customer so they should be willing to accommodate ;) I am always as nice as I possibly can and make jokes about it though too so typically no one gets annoyed with me! WOO WOO! Being nice really pays off!

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  20. So Inspiring! I just started on my ACV journey 3 days ago, my body has never been healthier and it literally cleared my colon, I feel so much lighter! This blog here is helping me lose weight: http://triggerbody.com

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