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Secrets of Restaurant Nutrition

What you need to know about nutrition and food safety in your favorite restaurants.

Off-Site Food Preparation

To cut down on labor costs, speed up service, and reduce the risk of food-borne illness, many chain restaurants and some independent restaurants serve food that is partially or fully cooked elsewhere, often in a central kitchen or food-processing facility. The practice helps restaurants solve training issues caused by the industry's high employee turnover rate.

"There are big labor savings," says Barbara Fields Brown, director of operations for Global Concessions, which owns 12 restaurants at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. "And we do not have to be worried about a lot of cross-contamination, because the food has already been cooked."

For diners, the benefits are less clear. They'll find consistently prepared food at chain outlets across the country. But if they'd like their steak prepared without seasoning or less salt in the chicken fajitas, they're out of luck.

How Clean Is the Restaurant?

Restaurants accounted for 41% of food-borne disease outbreaks between 1990 and 2006, according to a report compiled by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Private homes accounted for 22%.

Checking out a restaurant's health inspection report offers just a snapshot of its cleanliness on one day. If you live in a state or region where inspection reports must be posted in a restaurant or grades placed on entry doors, take the time to check out the information. Some inspection forms show previous grades, giving a more complete picture of a restaurant's attention to sanitation.

Many states and regions are moving to put restaurant health scores online, too. Find out who inspects restaurants in your area, then go online and look for scores. Hint: Many are listed under the "environmental health" section of local health department web sites.

Many restaurants have stringent food safety policies and training programs. Check out their web sites or ask a manager for information. Find out if the restaurant offers sick leave to employees. Many don't, which means sick employees are likely to show up for work and potentially spread illness.

Economy's Impact on Restaurant Food

As restaurants adjust to having fewer patrons, they may be adjusting what's on the plate to keep prices low. That can mean reducing the portion size of more expensive foods, or substituting less costly items, all of which can affect restaurant nutrition.

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