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Keep the dish, cut the calories

Madelyn Alfano decided it was time to slim down. Her menu, that is.

The owner of 12 Maria’s Italian Kitchens in southern California, Alfano had always accommodated her fitness-focused patrons’ diets, but recently she took things a step further. She hired nutritionist Anita Jones to revamp some of Maria’s most popular menu items by lowering their calorie, fat, cholesterol and sodium counts while increasing their nutritional value.

Why hire an outsider? Alfano and other restaurateurs believe it’s a less labor-intensive—and more accurate—way to go.

It’s also more marketable. Jones is director of the San Diego-based Healthy Dining Program, a team of culinary nutrition experts who analyze menu items and create “special request” menu sections branded with the group’s logo and supported with publicity and merchandising tools. To date, Healthy Dining has collaborated with hundreds of restaurants in California, ranging from QSR concepts such as Pick Up Stix to upscale venues like Pinot Bistro. Recently, the group partnered with the National Restaurant Association to create a nationwide nutrition website, www.healthydiningfinder.com. When the site goes live next year, consumers will be able to search for restaurants that provide healthful options all over the country, based on criteria such as zip code, type of cuisine and price range.

When Jones takes on a client, she begins by looking over the existing menu and zeroing in on items that look like good candidates for modifications. She then does a computerized nutrition analysis of the selected menu items to see where calories and fat are lurking.

“It’s not always about developing new dishes or reducing portion sizes,” she says. “To make the numbers look better, we sometimes do simple fixes, like changing the brand of BBQ sauce or the type of bun, reducing the oil or adding vegetables to the mix.”

It costs an operator like Alfano $150 per analysis. On average, restaurateurs choose eight items for analysis; after getting the results, they’re usually “stunned” to see in black and white how a recipe adds up, says Jones. One of her favorite examples is the innocent-sounding grilled Chicken Fajitas—a serving comes in at 1,774 calories, 109 g. fat and 2737 mg. sodium when accompanied by the usual guacamole, sour cream and cheese.

The next step is a written report, in which Jones suggests revisions that can be made in the kitchen. These might include changing the oil-vinegar ratio in the salad dressing, steaming instead of sauteing or using nonstick pans. As a bonus, many of the suggested changes save money, since lesser quantities of ingredients like oil, cheese or meat are used. Jones then compiles a separate Healthy Dining Menu filled with the modified items and a couple of new additions—all accompanied by calorie, fat, cholesterol and sodium figures.

For Maria’s Italian Kitchen, working with Jones resulted in a larger roster of healthy menu selections. “Located in the Los Angeles area, I’ve always had to provide some lightened up dishes, varying with the current diet trend,” says Alfano. “I’m happy I can now offer so many options for my customers.”

Sheila Cohn, director of nutrition policy for the National Restaurant Association, says look for a professional who does more than break down dishes into fat and calories. The American Dietetic Association (www.eatright.org) is a reliable source, she says. “Choose a dietitian who values and understands the culinary side,” Cohn advises.
“That person will be able to tweak menu items without compromising the creativity of the chef.”


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