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Secrets of Restaurant Nutrition

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

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.

Some restaurants are shrinking portions of meat and adding more vegetables and starches. More steamed broccoli is a good thing, but watch out for plates heaped with starches heavy in calories and saturated fat, such as buttery mashed potatoes and noodles in a cream sauce.

Other restaurants are leaving portion sizes alone but switching from more expensive, leaner cuts of meat, like tenderloin and pork chops, to fattier meats such as pork shoulder (Boston butt), spare ribs, beef short ribs, and chuck roast.

Here's another restaurant secret: For the best bargains and the most nutrients, stick to the center of the menu. Entrees usually have lower markups and more nutritional balance than other parts of a menu, like desserts, beverages and appetizers. A non-chocolate dessert may cost more than four times as much as the ingredients it contains. Lobster, on the other hand, is priced much closer to what it actually costs the restaurant, says Kevin Gillespie, executive chef at Woodfire Grill in Atlanta.

Small plates that are scaled-down versions of entrees can be a good deal. But watch how many you order, to keep calories and costs under control. Restaurants that have switched to small plates report higher check averages, because customers typically order more food.

Special Diets

On a special diet? Check a restaurant's web site before you go. Many restaurants, especially chain restaurants, include restaurant nutrition information about allergens, gluten-free foods, and diabetic exchanges online even if they don't disclose calories and other nutritional data.

Ask for a customized plate if you're on a restricted diet, but understand that not all restaurants can fulfill your request. While some chefs enjoy the creative challenge of preparing a low-sodium or low-fat meal, a special meal may be tougher at high-volume restaurants that may rely on meats or entrees prepared off-site.

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