french bread closeupStretchy, doughy, warm, soft, savory, yeasty, sweet, crispy -- bread is often the best part of the meal, especially when it's free. Many of America's most popular family chain restaurants serve complimentary bread with meals, and for some diners, the bread basket is as big a draw as any signature entree or side.

But bread can also be the most diet-unfriendly portion of your meal if you're not careful. Just think of all that delicious flour, butter, and sugar -- aka fat and carbs.

We've rounded up 7 mouthwatering bread baskets likely to tempt you at your next summer road trip pit stop, along with calorie info and healthy eating wisdom from nutritionist Bethany Thayer, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, so you can plan and enjoy without depriving yourself.

Thayer's best suggestion: Choose the bread or dessert but not both, or go for a 1- to 2-mile walk after dinner to help burn off that yummy slice.

The following counts don't include all that butter and olive oil you drown the bread in -- an additional 100 to 120 calories per tablespoon -- so spread wisely, too.

 

Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits1. Red Lobster

Cheddar Bay Biscuits

Made from scratch and brushed with scampi butter, these cheddar cheese biscuits are baked fresh every 15 minutes and are available at the restaurant as take-out. Because so many cooks and cookbook authors have tried to re-create the secret recipe, there's even a whole Cheddar Bay Biscuits web page with fun facts and info.

Free Refills: Yes

Calories: 150 per biscuit

Guilt-Free Tip: The secret to a good biscuit is shortening (fat) and salt. These have cheese added (more fat and salt) and are brushed with butter (more fat), which add up to a lot of fat and salt. Savor one, and if the kiddies don't polish off the rest, ask the waiter to take the basket back (as difficult as that will be).

 

2. Mimi's Cafe

Variety Basket

There's something for everyone in this basket:  one rustic French bread pillow roll; one slice of Mimi's famous carrot raisin nut loaf bread; and one slice of seasonal bread (coffee cake). In addition, many of the restaurant's signature dishes are served with a freshly baked muffin.

Free Refills: Yes. For dinner, each table gets one bread basket, while larger parties of six or more get two baskets, and additional ones are provided for every four guests. Bread is served on request only at lunch.

Calories: Dinner roll, 119; carrot loaf, 151; seasonal loaf, 115.

Guilt-Free Tip: Carrots are a great source of vitamin A, says Thayer, and you'll get some from the carrot loaf -- her best pick of the three -- but not as much as from a side dish of the veggie. The loaf also comes with 9 grams of fat, 1 gram of saturated fat, and 170 mg sodium.

 

Cracker Barrel biscuits and muffins3. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

Biscuits and Muffins

Diners get a choice of two baked from scratch items throughout the day: biscuits, corn muffins, or a mix of both. Servers will provide at least one or more muffins per person.

Free Refills: Yes

Calories: Not available; our nutritionist estimates about 135 calories per biscuit and 270 per corn muffin.

Guilt-Free Tip: The biscuits may be small, but they contain about 5.5 grams of fat each. The corn muffins contain twice as many calories and about 5 grams of fat. Thayer says pick the corn muffin, but share it with a friend.


4. Olive Garden

Olive Garden signature breadsticks
 
Signature Breadsticks

Served hot and brushed with a garlic-butter spread -- or plain on request -- these crunchy breadsticks come with optional sauces including marinara and alfredo.

Free Refills: Yes

Calories: 150 per breadstick with garlic-butter spread

Guilt-Free: The breadsticks also contain 400 mg of sodium each -- and that's before you've dipped them in marinara sauce, which is loaded with salt. Thayer suggests skipping the spreads altogether as these are savory enough plain, and if you are watching your salt, politely pass altogether.

 

Bob Evans bread basket
 
5. Bob Evans

 Rolls, Bread, and Biscuits

Guests get a choice of freshly baked rolls, banana nut bread, seasonal bread (cherry, blueberry, pumpkin, all made with real fruit), buttermilk biscuits, or Parmesan-crusted grilled garlic bread.  These are also sold in the retail area of the restaurant in whole loaves.

  Free Refills: Yes, with dinner entrees, 55 and over lunches/dinners, and Big Farm salads.

Calories: Dinner roll, 201; buttermilk biscuit, 260; banana nut bread, 215 per slice; pumpkin bread, 222; cherry bread, 279; blueberry bread, 315; Parmesan crusted garlic bread, 195.

Guilt-Free Tip: These biscuits are twice as big as the other restaurants' and have twice the calories and fat, not to mention the 859 mg of sodium. The quick breads run about 8 to 14 grams of fat per slice and 125 mg to 406 mg sodium. The Parmesan crusted garlic bread has fewer calories but still contains 9 grams of fat (3 of those from saturated fat) and 430 mg of sodium. Best bet from the basket: Cut the banana nut bread in half.

 

Legal Seafood Artisan Crusty Dinner Rolls6. Legal Sea Foods

Artisan Crusty Dinner Rolls

Made from a proprietary formulation, these all-natural rolls have a mild-sour flavor, with a light and aerated interior and crackery/chewy crust. Also sold online at  Legal Sea Foods.

Free Refills: Yes

Calories: Not available; estimate for rolls is 170 calories each.

Guilt-Free Tip: These rolls are low in fat; just don't forget about the calories and sodium that could add up if you eat too many.

 

7. Outback Steakhouse

Brown Bread Loaf

A honey-wheat bread served on a cutting board with a side of whipped butter. 

Free Refills: Yes

Calories: Not available; estimate for plain wheat bread is 66 calories per slice, the honey will add more.

Guilt-Free Tip: A lower-fat bread, but despite the color and the name, it's not whole-grain, and adding a lot of whipped butter will negate the lower fat.


*Currently not offering bread baskets: Applebee's, Chili's, Claim Jumper, Uno Chicago Grill, Ruby Tuesday.

 

Image on top via Adam Pieniazek/Flickr