Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Restaurant Meals

On the road, I eat in restaurants. If you go out for a restaurant meal once every couple of weeks with your friends, you look it over and order something that seems tasty, without a lot of regard for how good it is for you, because hey, it's an evening out. But when you eat all your meals for a month in restaurants, this becomes a concern. I get to the point where I say to myself, "What have I eaten so far today? What do I need to eat now?" And then the restaurants don't have what I want.

Sometimes I ask hopefully, "Do you have any vegetarian choices?" It's not that I'm vegetarian, but a person doesn't need meat every day. If you've ever eaten in a restaurant in Florida you'll know that you get enough in one meal to last you the rest of the week. If they understand my request, I'm typically pointed towards breaded deep-fried zucchini sticks or fettucini Alfredo. Applebee's has a Weight Watchers' menu, with lower fat, and the meals are good, but the dishes tend to be low in calories. Duh, that's the point if you're on a weight-loss diet, but I'm not. This may be my first good meal of the day, or the meal that is supposed to carry me through a seven hour overnight flight. Three hundred fifty calories isn't going to cut it. It's like there's a rule that if I want more than four hundred calories out of my meal, then it has to be half fat.

Most of the time I just order something and try to overcome both upbringing and the yummy taste of fatty foods, by not finishing the enormous meat portion, just eating the rice and vegetables and a sensible portion of the meat. Sometimes I'm high maintenance enough to comb through the menu and request the basmati rice from this dish, the vegetables--hold the butter--from this one and a side of black beans. I remember once I wasn't very hungry because I'd been eating in the airplane all day so I ordered a side salad, and then I noticed that the Caesar salad was available with grilled wild salmon on top, so I had them put that on my salad. It was great, but wow, if I had had a piece of fish that big at home, I would have served it to two people.

Scrutinizing the appetizer lists for something I can call a meal, I've learned that almost every appetizer is deep-fried or mostly cheese. Some are both. That's why they are tasty. Fat is delicious. I'm not the world's healthiest eater at home, either, but at least when you're doing the stuff to the food yourself you see how much oil you're putting in, and don't overdo it.

You can't just go, "bring me the healthiest thing on the menu," so I got the idea of printing off a copy of the government-issued healthy eating guide so I could refer to it in restaurants and ask if they could recommend a meal that complied. Nothing freaky, just a request for the normal food people are supposed to eat.

In school I learned to plan meals based on "the four food groups" of bread, fruit & vegetables, meat & alternates, and dairy. The Canada Food Guide has been updated since, but it's essentially the same. The graphic now appears to be a food rainbow, and the range of recommended foods more culturally diverse, but it's the same four food groups. It's a good system that's helped me shop and plan meals for years.

Obviously I'm not going to win any friends demanding some commie Canadian meal in the US. I know they have a similar thing here, called a food pyramid, with grains forming the broad flat base, building up with fruits and vegetables, then meat and dairy, and finally fats and sweetened foods making up the tiny top of the pyramid. Same information as the four food groups, plus the visual reminder of what kinds of foods should make up the bulk of the diet.

The graphic on the governemnt site seems to have missed the whole point of the pyramid, because the happy colours stream vertically from the apex, in equal amounts. Oh well. While the recommendations from the two governments are the same to the extent I have examined them, there doesn't seem to be a single print-out-and-stick-on-the-fridge page from the US site that would be appropriate for saying, "I want a meal like this."

Even if it were, it's an idea you think about, not an idea you do. I know the reaction I'd get. The menu is there, lady. Pick what you want. We have found a few restaurants where you could eat according to the food guide. We found a Crispers accidentally while trying to make a U-turn. It was tucked away next to a vitamin store. Good food and fast, too. Another quick-and-good place is Souplantation, called Sweet Tomatoes in some states. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet of healthy soups, breads and salads. There's another one too that I've forgotten the name of. It's a bagel and soup place with good sandwiches, and the bonus is I can take a few bagels for the plane. And I must single out urban California for living up to its stereotype with a wide availability of healthy foods.

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