Hmm ... crispy chicken or pasta in cream sauce?
If restaurant patrons pick menu items with the new Smart Meal Seal, the choice is ... neither.
Instead of cooking at home, some people choose to eat out nearly every meal. Restaurant food is often full of flavor, but many entrées taste fantastic because they include fat, salt and extra calories. Day after day of "cream" this and "crispy" that can add up to a ring around the waist.
Is it possible to eat out frequently and stay slim?
It's all about choices.
The Smart Meal Seal program is making it easier for both restaurants and consumers to choose healthy options. The plan was created by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to establish nutrition requirements specifically designed for restaurant meals. LiveWell Colorado funds the program, and it's promoted locally by Healthy Lifestyle La Plata.
"Once in a while, it's fine to go out and indulge in something full of fat and sodium," said Amita Nathwani, an ayurvedic practitioner and Healthy Lifestyle La Plata program coordinator.
"This program helps bridge the gap for those who eat out more often. On a day-to-day basis we want to make healthy choices that help us feel better, and save those higher caloric meals for special occasions."
Participating restaurants submit at least two recipes of items on the menu for nutritional analysis. Experts review the ingredients and work closely with chefs to adjust the recipes to fit the standards. In return, the restaurants get a window decal and promotional materials.
"Some restaurant owners say, 'well, we already have healthy menu items, why would we do this?' The point is that we can help you seal it for the consumer - we've done the analysis," said Nathwani.
The standards were developed from the American Heart Association, 5 A Day for Better Health, and the FDA nutrition labeling food guidelines. Entrées or side dishes must have the following:- Two or more servings of beans, whole grains, fruits or vegetables (one for a side dish).
- 700 or fewer calories (300 for side dish).
- 30 percent or less of total calories from fat, or 23 grams or fewer of total fat. (10 grams for side dish).
- 10 percent or less of calories from saturated fat, or 8 grams or fewer of saturated fat (3 grams for side dish)- 1,500 mg or fewer of sodium (650 for side dish).
The most challenging requirement for restaurants is not reducing fat, it's lowering sodium content, Nathwani said.
"A lot of dishes can be created relatively fat free, with meat that's seared and vegetables that are steamed. Salt is harder to replace, but you can substitute things like lemon and spices so you don't lose flavor," said Nathwani.
Portion size is also a challenge with restaurant food. Nathawani said the recommended calories per meal are generally exceeded if you go out to eat frequently.
"Here in America, the entrées are huge. If you want to lose weight, divide a meal in half and save the rest of it," she said.
Ingredient alterations are often minimal, and they are made with the chef's approval.
Zia Taqueria was the first local restaurant to launch the program. Zia's got the seal of approval for a burrito on its menu after chefs tweaked it to include vegetables and whole beans (over refried), less cheese and salt, and a smaller portion size.
Zia's owner Tim Turner said the program inspired him to pre-build meals for customers to fit the criteria.
"This allows our customers, if they choose, to order a meal that fits within their dietary needs," said Turner. "It takes away the potential urge to load up their meal with all the options as they go through the line."
Restaurants that use the Smart Meal Seal pay for materials and the initial analysis, and Healthy Lifestyle La Plata pays for customized, statewide publicity for the restaurant, including public service announcements, kick-off events and, as the program grows here, print ads.
As of April 2009, 20 Colorado restaurants with 200 locations include the Smart Meal Seal. Locally, Zia Taqueria has a fully launched program, and Carver Brewing Co., Digs Market Café and the Sky Ute Casino is working toward implementing it into their menus.
"We want to support local restaurants, rather than chains, and help them maintain their integrity and style of cooking," said Nathwani. "It's not a cookie-cutter kind of thing."
Choice is still the key element of the program. French fries or salad - it's still a matter of preference. But consumers now have a nutrition standard to clarify the options.
"Bottom line is, it gives someone the opportunity to eat smart, eat healthy and hopefully live a longer and happier life," said Turner. "In the end, isn't that what it's all about?"