How to Survive Restaurant Food.
Every time I see a Taco Bell commercial on television, I wonder how fun it would be to work in their R&D department. No rules, no guilt! Their primary customer is a perpetually hungry skinny teenage boy who can’t get enough calories in a day. He’s not getting fat. He needs sustenance and fast. Taco Bell menu items are brilliantly named to grab attention and get you salivating immediately like Chile Cheese Fries Loaded Griller, Crunchwrap Supreme, Beefy Fritos Burrito, Country A.M. Crunchwrap, Triple Layer Nachos. I’m starving! Imagine the excitement around the conference table as ideas are tossed around about what else can be stuffed into a taco shell. Taco Bell’s parent company is called Yum! Brands for a reason. Who cares that these teenage boys will be overweight middle-aged men who turn in their tacos for the equivalent of pork belly bites in 20 years.
These fast food folks are food pimps. Are there any job openings? I love creative problem solving and, full disclosure, I have a soft spot in my heart for R&D after years of dissecting fast food trends in my column Drive Thru Review for the Tennessean awhile back. But things are out of hand. Restaurant food is killing us as more than one third of Americans are obese. And we eat on average one third of our average daily 2,000 calories away from home.
It’s so easy to get lost in the fun. We’re all doing it, not just those skinny boys, because every restaurant is in the fun flavor game, whether high end or fast food. The primary goal is to stay in business and make money. That means keeping customers happily coming back for more by providing delicious attention-grabbing food. The simple truth is that the direct route to this end is to pump up the fat, sodium, sugar and portion size for over-the-top, punch-you-in-the-head flavor that’s so necessary in today’s competitive climate.
Subtlety will get you nowhere. Have you watched Guy Fieri lately? Why do you think David Chang rose to the top? Why else would fiery, greasy Nashville Hot Chicken become a national trend? We’re all caught up in this including the food media that desperately cheerlead the cronut and declare the definitive, essential and best of everything. They feed on any story as much as the chefs, restaurants and food producers feed on them.
The buzz kill is that you are completely on your own to take care of your nutritional needs and health while everywhere you turn the serpent is luring you in with a quick poison double cheeseburger or fabulous Parmesan black truffle fries. It’s crucial that we each self advocate and be armed with basic nutritional knowledge and most importantly WILLPOWER to make wise choices. And, yes, we all should cook and eat more food at home.
The recent New York Times story What Does 2000 Calories Look Like? really put this in perspective with a series of photographs of 2,000 calorie single meals at every level of foodservice. One meal and you’ve blown the whole day. Sorry.
Restaurant chains are now required by the FDA to post calorie information on their menus and a 2008 Stanford study conducted at Starbucks suggests that is having a positive impact on consumer choice and, good news, not affecting revenue. Public health policy folks are hopeful, so we’ll see how this pans out as restaurant compliance continues. For now, we’re all still fat and still struggling with over eating and making impulsive dining choices. Even with willpower, most of the time we’re totally guessing about the calorie and nutritional content of prepared foods eaten away from home. For one thing, food preparation is not an exact science especially when the restaurant is not a chain.
How do you find healthy choices at restaurants when so many calories are hidden? There’s plenty of good nutritional information online, but you’ll have to care enough to find it and supply your own will power.
The website and app Healthy Dining Finder offers nutritional assistance wading through the mire of chain restaurant menus. This website has partnered with thousands of chains nationwide and provides dietitian-approved items from each menu. They don’t bother telling you the bad news about most of the menu, just the dietitian approved items to order.
Even with the FDA ruling, diners are out of luck when it comes to knowing the calorie count and nutritional quality of menu items offered by small chains and locally owned restaurants. To fill this void, Nashville Entrepreneur Jason Denenberg recently launched a similar concept called NourishWise. His team of registered dietitians provides the nutritional information for partnering local restaurant menus that otherwise are not required to comply with the FDA ruling. You can sign up for the weekly newsletter on the NourishWise website. Their roster of partnerships is growing as restaurants strive to be more consumer friendly.
Here are some things to keep in mind as you stare at that undressed kale salad and big glass of water. Stay strong my friends!
- Portion size is a huge (no pun intended) issue when eating out. We’re all concerned with getting good value so that giant piece of cheesecake makes you feel better temporarily about spending the money. My favorite all-you-can-eat Indian buffet is packed with vegetables, but can I stop at just plate? No. I adore the fantastic turkey avocado sandwich at Nordstrom’s 6th and Pine, but it’s enormous. I get suckered in every time and eat the whole thing and regret it. Why not order half or split it with a friend or box up half for later? To much food is too much food period, even if it’s a giant wheatgrass smoothie. Try not to consume a plateful of food as big as your head!
- Start grazing by ordering a mix and match meal of soup, vegetable sides and salads instead of a big entree. And share what you can. It’s like dating around. No commitment necessary. Have fun tasting a bite of many dishes.
- Choose vegetables that have not been fried. Even better, try for green vegetables. A traditional Nashville “vegetable” plate may include mac and cheese, cornbread dressing, mostly cheese broccoli casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy, and fried okra. Maybe you should order the turnip greens.
- Ask how foods are prepared. Keep the dialog going with your server. You will be annoying, but leave a good tip.
- Watch out for hidden calories. Sounds easy. They’re everywhere! Obviously, say no to the onion rings, but even that simply grilled fish likely has been slathered with plenty of butter, oil, gravy, or cream sauce. How many Jackson Pollack squirt bottle sauces on one plate do you need anyway? Of course, get the salad dressing on the side.
- Drinks are empty calories. A big fruit tea with your salad sounds great, but offers nothing but lots of sugar. Don’t get me started on those expensive curated cocktails. You’ll feel used, plus you’ll be broke, drunk, and fat. And there is such a thing as a craft brew butt, I know.
- Always share a dessert, if you really must have one. You’re full from dinner, remember? All you need to satisfy a sweet tooth is a few bites.
- Order whole grains and breads. Get the brown rice at Pei Wei. Sorry, I draw the line at whole wheat pizza crust. Just don’t go crazy with too much cheese and fatty toppings.
- Eat slowly and be mindful of every bite. Allow your stomach to catch up to your head. Keep talking to your dinner companions. You can’t talk and eat at the same time. I have trouble not cleaning my plate and prefer not to have it whisked away by the server before my dinner companions finish. But, do it if physically removing the plate gets the food mentally out of your mind.
- Get over bacon. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need crispy, smoky pork bits on every salad, every sandwich, every burger, in every vegetable, or even in dessert! And those unctuous cubes of pork belly are doing you no good. Just say no to Benton’s! This will be especially difficult as it’s listed on every trendy menu in town.
- Keep it simple. Don’t get lured in by “five cheese” or “three meat” anything. Too many ingredients listed on the menu is a sure sign of an overwrought dish designed to attract the ignorant diner. Don’t be one.
- If you blow it, move on and do better next time. Or plan for a splurge. No need to be a martyr so make a plan you can stick with.
- Don’t get sucked in by fancy chef food. Sean Brock’s pedigreed fried chicken is as fried as KFC. Neither he, nor KFC, really care if your pants are a little tight. That’s not their job, it’s yours.
- EATING OUT SURE IS FUN, BUT REMEMBER IF YOU COOK REAL FOOD AT HOME YOU CAN AFFORD A MUCH BETTER BOTTLE OF WINE FOR HALF THE PRICE YOU PAID AT A RESTAURANT.