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Healthy Choices

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By The Critical Insights Double Agent September 2013 Health & Nutrition

Sometimes it feels as if all I do is eat and exercise. It isn’t exactly the case, but as a restaurant critic responsible for a weekly review and multiple weekly blog posts about my city’s dining scene, I have to eat out a lot. And because I have no desire to fall on the wrong side of the statistics in our nation’s obesity epidemic, I also think a lot about all the calories I’m consuming while eating out.

Even so, despite my personal plight, I’m conflicted about the current push (both governmental and societal) to have restaurants offer healthier alternatives.

Personally, I would appreciate less-fattening food, and in the fast-casual world it makes a lot of sense to give consumers a choice about what they’re eating. I rarely eat fast food, but when I do (say, while on a long road trip), I gravitate to healthier options and hate it if there are none available. I also know that fast food is an easy and affordable way for many folks to feed their families—and in that regard, it has a responsibility to offer some healthy options.

But what about in full-service restaurants? Especially those that are more likely to be special-occasion destinations?

I eat in these places four or five times a week, but most people aren’t indulging in fine dining that often. If you’re out for your one special meal of the week, or month, or year, are you really thinking about healthy choices?

Next year, new rules will require any restaurant with more than 20 units to post calorie counts on menus. And yet, studies have shown that those calorie counts do very little to change the way customers order. This is partly just common sense—few people walk into a burger shack looking for health food. And I’m about as likely to order from the “healthy choices” section of a full-service restaurant’s menu as I am to order from the kid’s menu. Dining out is supposed to be about being pampered and indulging, not about being virtuous.

Yet, I appreciate it when I leave a restaurant feeling well-fed but not overstuffed. And despite the research stating that consumers basically don’t care about calorie counts, the pressure is only going to increase for restaurants to provide healthy menu options.

I don’t want to get all conspiracy theory here, but it’s unlikely the calorie-counts law will be the end of regulation and legislation regarding restaurant food and health.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer some advice on how to provide healthy food while maintaining quality and interest, and without making your customers feel like they’re being any less pampered.

Go Green

First of all, vegetables are delicious. They’re also good for you. This sounds like very simple stuff, but you’d be amazed how often restaurants forget it. Broccoli is great and iceberg lettuce has its place, but there’s a whole world of vegetables out there that are versatile, inexpensive, and wonderful.

If the vegetables on your menu come down to mashed potatoes and a few boring salads, you need to branch out. Some of the most creative cooking is produced by chefs who are doing new and exciting things with cauliflower, sugar snap peas, fiddlehead ferns, artichokes, okra, asparagus, pumpkin, and more.

Don’t limit yourself to sides. Think about soups, stews, creative salads, veggie hash under proteins, flatbreads, and veggie plates.

Be Versatile

The same is true of grains—there are myriad uses for farro, quinoa, black rice, barley, and more. As an accompaniment to fish or meat, they are just as satisfying and far less fattening than butter-and-cream-laden mashed potatoes.

Instead of trying to make things “low fat” that aren’t naturally low fat, just add less actual fat to things that don’t need it. It makes me crazy to see low-fat cheese or boring, skinless chicken breasts on the same menu that deep fries everything else. Balance goes a long way.

Acid is your friend. Many chefs rely on fat because it makes things taste good. But there are other ways to add flavor, and one of the elements I often find missing from the flavor profiles of dishes in American restaurants is acid.

Lemon juice can be just as much of a flavor enhancer as bacon—they’ll result in very different dishes, of course, but one is not necessarily better tasting than the other. And vinegar is more than an ingredient for salad dressing.

Sugar, however, is overused. A pinch of sugar in a great marinara sauce brings out all the other flavors. But I’m baffled as to why so many sauces for savory dishes are stickily sweet. There’s no need for it!

The same goes for salad dressing—why ruin perfectly good salad greens with ultra-sweet dressing? Aggressive sugar should be saved for dessert.

I would never advise restaurants to take that best-selling bacon burger off the menu, or replace french fries with carrot sticks. But there are smart ways you can offer healthy dishes to those who want them, and perhaps even entice the burger-and-fries set to try something new.

Healthy food doesn’t have to feel virtuous. At the best restaurants, even the healthier dishes pamper the diner. At the very least, I guarantee that your local restaurant critic will thank you.