It’s no doubt that Americans love to eat out. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, fully 34 percent of every dollar is spent on food prepared and eaten outside the home. It’s fun, easy, tasty and entertaining to eat out. The trouble is, research shows this is a significant contribution to our expanding waistlines and the major source of sodium in the diet, a contributing factor in high blood pressure.
So, what can restaurants do to improve the health of their menus, and Americans overall? As a registered dietitian nutritionist, here is my list, from first to last course:
• Beverages. Offer more zero- and low-calorie drinks. Sparkling waters flavored with a variety of fruits are a good choice and popular. Nonfat and lowfat milk, and flavored coffees with stevia (made from a naturally sweet leaf with zero calories and no aftertaste) instead of sugar can save hundreds of calories and improve nutrition. If cocktails are offered, offer some with these lower-calorie options and label them as such.
• Darken the greens. Many restaurants serve pale-green iceberg lettuce-based salads, with few other vegetables. Unfortunately, it is little more than crunchy water. Pump up the nutrition (vitamins A, K and folate) by adding a variety of dark greens, such as tangy arugula and mustard greens, spinach, green and red romaine lettuce, crunchy red cabbage (vitamin C) and radicchio. Add broccoli, cauliflower, radishes and, of course, tomatoes for added taste and nutrients. All are low calorie and are important to brain and heart health, so consume at least one to two times a day.
• Keep it on the side. Many restaurants serve salads loaded with cheese, croutons, bacon and dressing. Ask for all of this on the side (or delete some), so you can control your calories. Choose vinegar and oil-based dressings as the healthier option.
• Offer more soups. Research has shown that soups (broth-based, not cream-based) can be energy dense, so they fill you up on fewer calories. They can also be a great way to increase vegetable intake.
• Hold the bread. Many sit-down restaurants offer tasty breads as an appetizer. Of course, we’re hungry, so we fill up on it. If you have to offer it, offer it with the meal, and only if patrons request it.
• Fruit it up. The majority of Americans eat only one-half to one serving of fruit a day, instead of 1-1/2 cups. Offer a variety of fruits in salads, on the salad bar, and as a side offering at all meals. Make more fruit-based desserts. A fresh-fruit mixture can serve as a refreshing dessert as well.
• Shrink the portions. All menu offerings, from salads to entrees, are still too super-sized. There is a lack of research that shows patrons prefer them, or choose a restaurant, due to their large portions. The bigger the plate and portion, the more we mindlessly eat. Even cutting them by a third would help.
• Cut the salt. By far, the main source of sodium in our diet is from restaurant-prepared and processed foods. Nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association, and over 60 percent of those over age 65. Cutting the salt in our diet can significantly reduce blood pressure. Restaurants can help by preparing foods from scratch, and limiting added salt.
• Spice it up. Instead of relying on salt for flavor, try fresh or dried herbs and spices, and flavored vinegar or oils. We eat by following our sense of smell, and spices will draw more customers. Spices are also packed with healthy antioxidants, helping our hearts.
• Cut the butter. Many sit-down restaurants put butter on everything — from vegetables to steak. Ask for no added butter on all foods. Remember, butter is high in artery-clogging saturated fat, so use it sparingly.
• Use beans, nuts and seeds for protein. More people are looking for and trying more plant-based foods. Be a leader and offer more entrees featuring pinto, cannellini, Great Northern, garbanzo (chick peas) or any other beans, nuts or seeds in salads, soups, with pasta, etc.
• Include fish. Fish and shellfish are terrific brain and heart healthy foods. Yet, Americans eat an average of one serving per week; the recommendation is at least two per week. Don’t just offer only deep-fried fish and shellfish. Baked, broiled, grilled, pan-fried menu items and seafood in soups, stews and as appetizers are all great choices.
If we, as customers, start requesting more of these suggestions, and restaurants respond, what a change we can make to not only our health, but the health of our communities.