Regulating dining out– what do you think?

It’s not news that NYC has some of the most progressive (or, depending on how you look at it, regressive) food service laws in the US. They were among the first to ban trans fat, and now they mandate that chain restaurants include nutritional information on their menus. I do indulge in the occasional chain restaurant, and am appalled at the nutritional information I have found. Chipotle is a pretty bad one– their food is purported to be healthy (lots of veggies, no antibiotics in their chicken, the only thing that is fried are the chips) and compared to, say, McDonalds, it is (though McDonalds can be applauded for adding fairly healthful salads to their menu, as well as adding fruit to the choices for their Happy Meals. I’m not saying a standing ovation, but golf claps will certainly do)– however, I discovered the Chipotle Fan website, which has a nutritional calculator. Oof. Scary. I usually (“usually” translates to twice in a year) get a salad — for me, substandard tortillas aren’t worth the calories– and the salad, though heavy with veggies, is still about 885 calories. Let’s not talk about the sodium, which is atrocious, and the fat, most of which comes from the salad dressing. There is no reduced calorie or low fat option.

If I made the same salad at home– with a fresh vinaigrette, marinated grilled chicken, and homemade (or perhaps store-bought from someplace like Trader Joe’s or Fresh Market or Madison’s) fresh salsa, I know I could cut the calories in half. I think that’s the problem– most people in America now don’t know how to or desire to cook and don’t know what actually is involved in the ingredients of food. All of that salt, fat, and any artificial stuff that might land in there doesn’t NEED to be there, but the mass production of chain restaurants needs salt and artificial stuff for preservatives and to match the palate of the average American, which is generally oversalted.

For me, banning might not be the road to go down (I have a libertarian streak, I guess), but education is. At a chain restaurant, where everything is standardized, there is no excuse for not having nutritional information on a website. A book I picked up recently,Eat This Not That: Thousands of Simple Food Swaps That Can Save You 10, 20, 30 Pounds-or More! , has healthful choices vs. really horrible choices at various chain restaurants. Outback, for example, argues that its meals are so “fresh” that they can’t quantify nutritional content– probably because they have an appetizer that has 2900 calories. Ouch. I would never, ever expect a non-corporate restaurant to have the resources to provide nutritional information, but a restaurant that develops their food in a corporate test kitchen has no excuse.

Do you make choices at restaurants based on health or caloric content? I’ll admit that lately I haven’t, but when I lost a bunch of weight in 2006, it’s all I did and found places like Panera, that had nutritional information online, a godsend. Counting calories can be a bear, but for many it works and at the very least allows the diner to go in knowing what they’re in for. So what do we need? Calorie counts? A more educated public? I’d argue for both– not on the menu, per se, but at least available on websites. As Americans, our perception of portions has become distorted (“value” = “big portions”), but we’ve also got a major collective fear of fat (both in foods and on our waistlines) which leads to some nutritional schizophrenia. What are your thoughts?