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 The Savvy Restaurant Eater

Ross Hume Hall, Ph.D.
biochemistry, nutrition,  food technology.

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The average American family eats more food in restaurants or takeouts from restaurants than they buy in supermarkets. The government mandates nutrition labeling for supermarket products. This is supposed to help you make wise choices. But where's the guide when you order in a restaurant? There is none.

A savvy restaurant eater using clues, however, can recognize the quality of restaurant food.

The Modern, Urban Kitchen

We were sitting around the breakfast table drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups with our new friends, Gail and Fred, a young couple in their mid thirties. Meeting them through mutual friends on a Vermont visit, we were now seated in their Ohio home.

Munching an muffin so sweet that my teeth started to hum, I remarked, I could see no kitchen appliances. No coffee maker, no toaster. The refrigerator sat with its door ajar, obviously not plugged in. No time to prepare meals, Gail said. Fred, in fact, had fetched the industrial coffee and factory muffins from a fast-food restaurant 10 minute drive away.

Gail said that with their demanding jobs they ate all meals out or brought takeout food homeóon plastic dishes.

The visit got me to thinking about the nutritional well being of people who rely mostly on restaurant food. If you shop in a supermarket, at least you can read nutrition labels. But in a restaurantónot a shred of information about how the food is prepared.

The nutritional worth of restaurant foods varies enormously. You can only eat so much. So why settle for low-value foods. You can easily become a savvy restaurant eater, following the tips I give you.

For starters, nutritional worth, begins with the type of restaurant. Hereís a look at three main types.

Fast-Food Restaurants

Fast-food chains cater to impulse eating. When people feel hungry, they want food now. They get it within 50 seconds of ordering. (This speed doesnít take into account the length of time spent standing in line.) The food is consistent, no surprises. Customers know exactly what they will get when they order.

Economics drives the fast-food business. Nutrition is incidental. The big question: Can you eat both fast and healthy? The answer to that question has to be, "only with difficulty". Fast foods thrive on three ingredients: fat, salt, and sugar. Itís what customers want.

Take, for example, a typical fast-food meal of hamburger, fries, and chocolate shake. Here is an analysis of such a meal served at McDonaldís..

A Meal at McDonaldís

Menu Item

Calories

Fat Grams

Protein
Grams

Carbs,
Grams

Big Macô

560 32.4 25.2 43

Fries, large

400 21.6 5.6 46

Shake, choc.

320 1.7 11.6 66

TOTALS

1280 55.5 42.4 155

Source, McDonaldís and USDA data bases

This meal provides 1280 calories, two thirds the daily calories an average woman needs with the calorie proportions skewed towards fat. The calorie proportion is:

fat, 39%
protein, 13 %
carbohydrate, 48% (half from sugar)

This meal provides a satisfactory portion of protein. No issue there. The nutritional problem with this meal lies in the 63 percent of its calories from two impoverished sources, fat and sugar (39+24%).

The term, impoverish, means the consumer gets calories but few if any of the nutrients the body needs to digest and metabolize the food. In addition the fat, mainly from the French fries, consists partly of the unnatural trans fats.

From a cellís-eye perspective, a meal of this type puts an enormous strain on the bodyís resources. First the meal is difficult to metabolize. Second, the spectrum of essential building blocks the body needs for tissue renewal is incomplete. Itís equivalent to repairing a leaking roof on your house and there arenít enough new shingles to complete the job. The roof functions but the leaks donít stop.

The fast-food industry counters this argument, saying the individual balances her or his nutrition through the rest of the dayís food. Itís an argument that says, we donít have to supply top-level nutrition because the customer gets needed nutrition elsewhere. The argument doesnít wash because much of the food the average American eats the rest of the day is not much different from the fast-food meal.

The Full-Service, Casual Dining Chains

A cut above the fast-food chains, are restaurant chains that provide table service or buffet-grills. They offer casual, sit-down dining with unbolted chairs. Customers like them for their more relaxed atmosphere, and are willing to pay the slightly higher prices.

The chains can be classed as:

Grill and buffet. Customers select items from a standard buffet plus something from the grill.

Family chains. They offer table service and are open for breakfast, lunch and diner, but typically no alcohol.

Dinner house chains. They offer table service and are open for lunch and dinner. They serve alcohol.

Whatever the class, the behind-the-scenes food service is the same. These chains copy the operating techniques of the fast-food chains. They have a standard menu for all restaurants in the chain. The menu, which remains the same year after year, is generally broader than menus of the fast-food chains. They serve the burgers, the French fries, and the chicken sandwiches, plus other food items that can be mass produced.

The food is produced in a central factory, portioned, frozen, and shipped to each restaurant of the chain. That juicy-looking steak, for example, is not solid meat. At a central factory, raw meat is shredded into tiny flakes, chemical glues and extra fat are added, and the gummy mass is pressed under steamroller pressure into laminations. Same idea as press board. For a final touch, automated machinery prints grill marks.

Cooking in such a restaurant requires no skill. When a customer orders an item, a minimum-wage "cook" pulls the frozen meat out of the freezer and puts it on the grill for a set number of minutes. No guesswork, because each portion is identical. Cooking time is standardized.

By the time the meal reaches the customerís table, many hands have manipulated the food. Chemical additives flood the food. Taste enhancers make up for flavor drained during manufacturing. Salt, plenty of salt, is dumped in to mask off-flavors.. The meals are frozen and thawed, perhaps several times.

Meals in such restaurants carry no more nutritional worth than what you get in a fast-food restaurant. The menu items are high in fat, salt and chemical additives.

Independent, Owner-Operated Restaurants

By far the greatest number of restaurants are independent, owner-operated. The restaurant business is probably the easiest business to start. You donít need cooking skills and thereís a ready-made customer base. People need to eat. But keeping customers and staying in business is another matter. Only those owner-operators who find a winning formula and have good business skills survive.

Independent restaurants vary enormously in the quality and kinds of meals they offer. They range from the low-price, family-style to the upscale, expense-account restaurant whose kitchen is run by a chef, graduate of a culinary college.

Assessing nutritional quality of food in an independent restaurant is not straightforward. At least in a fast-food restaurant, you know the nutritional worth of most items rank at a bottom level. But for an independent restaurant you donít know? We once ate in a local Thai restaurant, which advertised:

Meticulously Prepared, Authentic Asian dishes.

The meal was O.K., not exceptional. Next day we visited BJís, one of those food warehouses which sells everything by the case. I was surprised to see the owner of the Thai restaurant pushing a shopping wagon burdened with frozen, oriental meals, all factory produced and exceptionally cheap.

In contrast, a restaurant that employs a named chef probably does prepare a meal mostly from scratch from fresh ingredients. You pay, however, for this level of service.

Seven Clues For Judging A Restaurantís Overall Nutrition Quality

1.Only iceberg lettuce in the salad bar? The icebergís nutrition is not much different than that of green leafy lettuce. The difference is quantity. Iceberg is mostly water. You get about half the nutrition from a leaf of iceberg as a leaf of romaine. But iceberg also signals a lack of imagination and interest on the part of management in providing a varied, fresh salad bar.

At the salad bar check the number of items that are genuinely fresh, such as sprouts, pepper slices, fresh tomatoes, and so on. Or, are most items out of cans, like bean salad, pasta salad, baked beans, pickled tomatoes, etc. A salad bar; loaded with fresh items indicates that restaurant management takes an interest in nutritional quality. Look for an added plus: Does the restaurant offer local fresh produce in season?

2. If salad is served at the table, does it arrive, drenched in dressing? This likely means the salad is prepared long in advance, possibly at a central factory. Order dressing on the side.

3. Look at the menuís selections for kids. Do the selections consist of fried food and French fries, no items of better nutritional quality? It is unlikely the restaurantís main selections will offer adults better quality.

4. Does the restaurant offer a choice of rolls or bread, including whole grain breads? Or do they restrict choice to a white, exceedingly soft roll or mini-loaf? In this case, the restaurant is almost certainly giving you a chemical-laden, frozen-dough bread.

5. Does the restaurant microwave hot items? This fact is generally hard to tell unless you can see the kitchen. Sometimes, a cooperative serving person will tell you. In any event, microwaving indicates you are getting warmed-over food, prepared goodness knows where or when.

6. Details. A good restaurant pays attention to details. Likely, you wonít see butter pats in wrappers, or crackers in cellophane or artificial flowers.

7. Is the menu enormous, chockfull of a variety of entrees, side dishes, and soups.? This type of restaurant keeps that enormous variety of food frozen. Nothing is pulled out of the freezer until a customer places an order.

Whatís the mater with frozen? For a meal to survive freezing and cold storage, the manufacturer adds chemicals. Freezing alone cheapens nutritional worth, because the process breaks down a foodís structure. In short, a commercial meal out of a freezer offers no better nutritional value than a fast-food meal

.

A Savvy Strategy for Restaurants

While, each of the seven clues provides some indication of food quality, consider all factors. Many times you are unable to make a final judgment until you have eaten in a restaurant at least once.

Finally, you donít have to order a complete meal. Often two selections among the appetizers and soups makes a satisfying meal. Or, mix and share your orders. In a steak house, for instance, one person orders meat, potato, and salad. The other orders just the potato and salad.

The key to surviving on restaurant food is common sense and creative ordering.

© 2001, Ross Hume Hall. All rights reserved
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