It's no doubt Americans love to eat out. According to the United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, 34% of every dollar spent is on food prepared and eaten outside the home. It's fun, easy, tasty and entertaining! 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:
Offer more zero and low calorie drinks. Sparking waters flavored with a variety of fruits are a good choice and very popular. Non- and low fat 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 little other vegetables. Unfortunately, iceberg lettuce is little more than crunchy water! Pump up the nutrition (Vitamins A, K, 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 carrots and tomatoes for added taste and nutrients. All are very low calorie and are important in brain and heart health, so consume at least 1-2 times/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 soups (broth, not cream based) can be very low energy dense, so it fills you up on less calories. Soups 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 bread, offer it with a meal, if patrons request it.
Fruit it up
The majority of Americans eat only ½-1 serving of fruit a day, instead of 1½-2 cups. Offer a variety 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 super-sized. There is a lack of research to show patrons prefer them, or choose a restaurant based on 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% of those over age 65. Cutting the salt in our diet can significantly reduce blood pressure. Restaurants can help by preparing foods from fresh, and limit added salt.
Spice it up!
Instead of relying of salt for flavor, try fresh or dried herbs and spices, and flavored vinegar or oils. We eat by following our sense of smell, and these will draw more customers. They are also packed with healthy antioxidants, helping our hearts.
Cut the Butter!
Many sit down restaurants put butter on everything- from vegetables to steak! Limit added butter on all foods. Remember butter is very high in artery-clogging saturated fat, so use sparingly.
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 (aka chick peas) or any other beans, nuts or seeds in salads, soups, with pasta, etc.
Fish and shellfish are terrific brain and heart healthy foods. Yet Americans eat an average of 1 serving per week; the recommendation is at least 2 per week. Please just don't offer only deep fried. Baked, broiled, grilled, pan fried, and in soups, stews, and as appetizers are all great choices.
If 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! Bon appétit!