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A Guide to Choosing Healthy Food – And Safe Restaurants – When Dining Out

Posted on | June 15, 2010 | Comments Off on A Guide to Choosing Healthy Food – And Safe Restaurants – When Dining Out

A recent news report from Agence France-Presse (AFP) New York goes:  “New York on Sunday became the first US city to banish trans fats from its restaurants, but the city is facing an uphill struggle in forcing some eateries to display calorie information on their menus.”  The report continues:  “For the majority of New York’s 20,000 restaurants, the transition towards healthier cooking oils seems to have gone smoothly, although some have displayed a degree of reluctance.”

Actually besides trans fats, dining in restaurants presents one other health concern:  Many of the reported cases of food-borne illness result from food that has been eaten away from home.  A health report from Ontario, Canada cited a yearly average of roughly 340 outbreaks of food-borne disease in the last ten years in that province.  The report also showed restaurants topping the list of risk settings for these outbreaks.

A major culprit in food-borne illness is the Salmonella bacterium, which thrives in raw or undercooked meat, poultry, and eggs.  Moreover, salmonella can be transmitted to other foods that have been contaminated by raw meats.

The US federal government enforces regulations that are designed to ensure the safe handling and preparation of food.  But those regulations are effective only if restaurant workers adhere to them.  Wise consumers must use their judgment and experience when deciding where they can dine safely.  Health experts suggest the following ways to determine the quality and cleanliness of the restaurants that you frequent:

– Pay attention to reputation.  A restaurant with a loyal following usually earns it with high-quality food.

– Look around you.  Are the tables, rest rooms, and other public areas messy or neat?  Do surfaces and utensils look clean?

– Take a peek into the kitchen.  Is it clean and well organized?  Understaffed operations breed carelessness, which, in turn, can allow bacteria to breed.

– Ask questions.  Do servers seem knowledgeable about the food and its preparation?  A well-trained wait staff is a good indicator of a well-trained kitchen staff.

Once you’re persuaded that a restaurant is safe, turn your attention to the foods you select.  Salmonella and most other bacteria can’t survive high heat, so thorough cooking eliminates that threat.  Stay away from dishes that are raw (steak tartare, carpaccio, oysters on the half shell) or undercooked (pan-seared tuna, rare beef, runny eggs).  If you order Caesar salad, make sure it isn’t prepared with raw eggs.  If food looks undercooked, send it back.  Better to wait a few extra minutes than to endure the effects of food poisoning.

Now that you’ve selected a safe spot and skipped the riskiest items on the menu, let’s go back to that AFP New York report’s main issue and concern.  You’ll want to order foods that aren’t overloaded with fat, salt, and calories.  More and more restaurants offer some heart-healthy dishes.  For the rest of your choices, you’ll have to develop smart ordering habits.  Here are some tips:

1) Ask for sauces, dressings, and butter on the side to control how much to use.

2) Specify if you want skim milk in your coffee.

3) Make clear if you want your chicken served without the fatty skin.

4) Stick to menu items prepared nutritiously:  poached, steamed, broiled, or roasted.

5) Go easy on dishes that are creamed, fried, or pan-fried and anything described “buttery,” “cheesy,” or “crispy.”

6) Beware of foods that may seem healthy but aren’t, such as fried eggplant (extremely high in fat) and Cobb salad.

Finally, ask about preparation methods.  Braising in broth is quite healthy; in butter, it’s highly fattening.

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