By Carolyn O’Neil, for the AJC
It’s easy to understand why nutrition advice includes cautionary tales of restaurant menu items that deliver more than a day’s calorie limit with overblown portions and whopping amounts of sugar, salt and fat.
But registered dietitian Connie Guttersen doesn’t think that means declaring a ban on dining out. “Eating out is part of the daily American lifestyle. Strategies for success are essential to help diners who need to lose [weight] or maintain weight loss and feel good about eating in restaurants.”
She says access to the facts helps diners decide what to order. For instance, nutrition information on menu items at P.F. Chang’s reveals wide swings in calories. Choose the orange peel beef and you’re looking at 1,400 calories on the plate vs. the Cantonese shrimp with only 350 calories per serving.
Guttersen knows a lot about the good, the bad and the shockingly unhealthful choices in restaurants today. As a nutrition instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, she’s on the front lines of gathering the food facts on menu items and sharing them with the next generation of chefs.
Nutrition is an important focus in culinary schools today. Chefs gain the food knowledge and cooking techniques needed to prepare more healthful menus that are just as appealing and sell just as well as restaurants’ more decadent choices.
Guttersen says plenty of examples illustrate that good nutrition is making its way into food service. Those include trends to offer small plates, seasonal produce and flavors added to recipes with spices, herbs, fruit salsas and vinegars instead of butter, cream and cheese.
So, what’s her best advice for diners to navigate a menu in search of a meal that will support a healthful lifestyle?
“Try not to micromanage by fretting about the exact calorie count of a dish,” she says. “Instead, be mindful and visualize a healthy plate with at least 75 percent plant-based foods. Eating mostly vegetables, fruit and grains should become second nature. It’s what we call the ‘plate flip.’ Meat shouldn’t be the star of the plate.”
Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at carolyn@carolynoneil .com.