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Economy's Impact on Restaurant Food continued...

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.

Watch the Seafood

Be picky about seafood. Chef and author Anthony Bourdain clued foodies in to an unwritten restaurant secret -- never eat seafood on Mondays -- in Kitchen Confidential. That's because many restaurants, except a select group that specialize in fresh seafood, don't get deliveries over the weekend. And seafood deteriorates much more rapidly than meat and poultry.

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