Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Restaurant Meals

On the road, I eat in restaurants. If you go out for a restaurant meal once every couple of weeks with your friends, you look it over and order something that seems tasty, without a lot of regard for how good it is for you, because hey, it's an evening out. But when you eat all your meals for a month in restaurants, this becomes a concern. I get to the point where I say to myself, "What have I eaten so far today? What do I need to eat now?" And then the restaurants don't have what I want.

Sometimes I ask hopefully, "Do you have any vegetarian choices?" It's not that I'm vegetarian, but a person doesn't need meat every day. If you've ever eaten in a restaurant in Florida you'll know that you get enough in one meal to last you the rest of the week. If they understand my request, I'm typically pointed towards breaded deep-fried zucchini sticks or fettucini Alfredo. Applebee's has a Weight Watchers' menu, with lower fat, and the meals are good, but the dishes tend to be low in calories. Duh, that's the point if you're on a weight-loss diet, but I'm not. This may be my first good meal of the day, or the meal that is supposed to carry me through a seven hour overnight flight. Three hundred fifty calories isn't going to cut it. It's like there's a rule that if I want more than four hundred calories out of my meal, then it has to be half fat.

Most of the time I just order something and try to overcome both upbringing and the yummy taste of fatty foods, by not finishing the enormous meat portion, just eating the rice and vegetables and a sensible portion of the meat. Sometimes I'm high maintenance enough to comb through the menu and request the basmati rice from this dish, the vegetables--hold the butter--from this one and a side of black beans. I remember once I wasn't very hungry because I'd been eating in the airplane all day so I ordered a side salad, and then I noticed that the Caesar salad was available with grilled wild salmon on top, so I had them put that on my salad. It was great, but wow, if I had had a piece of fish that big at home, I would have served it to two people.

Scrutinizing the appetizer lists for something I can call a meal, I've learned that almost every appetizer is deep-fried or mostly cheese. Some are both. That's why they are tasty. Fat is delicious. I'm not the world's healthiest eater at home, either, but at least when you're doing the stuff to the food yourself you see how much oil you're putting in, and don't overdo it.

You can't just go, "bring me the healthiest thing on the menu," so I got the idea of printing off a copy of the government-issued healthy eating guide so I could refer to it in restaurants and ask if they could recommend a meal that complied. Nothing freaky, just a request for the normal food people are supposed to eat.

In school I learned to plan meals based on "the four food groups" of bread, fruit & vegetables, meat & alternates, and dairy. The Canada Food Guide has been updated since, but it's essentially the same. The graphic now appears to be a food rainbow, and the range of recommended foods more culturally diverse, but it's the same four food groups. It's a good system that's helped me shop and plan meals for years.

Obviously I'm not going to win any friends demanding some commie Canadian meal in the US. I know they have a similar thing here, called a food pyramid, with grains forming the broad flat base, building up with fruits and vegetables, then meat and dairy, and finally fats and sweetened foods making up the tiny top of the pyramid. Same information as the four food groups, plus the visual reminder of what kinds of foods should make up the bulk of the diet.

The graphic on the governemnt site seems to have missed the whole point of the pyramid, because the happy colours stream vertically from the apex, in equal amounts. Oh well. While the recommendations from the two governments are the same to the extent I have examined them, there doesn't seem to be a single print-out-and-stick-on-the-fridge page from the US site that would be appropriate for saying, "I want a meal like this."

Even if it were, it's an idea you think about, not an idea you do. I know the reaction I'd get. The menu is there, lady. Pick what you want. We have found a few restaurants where you could eat according to the food guide. We found a Crispers accidentally while trying to make a U-turn. It was tucked away next to a vitamin store. Good food and fast, too. Another quick-and-good place is Souplantation, called Sweet Tomatoes in some states. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet of healthy soups, breads and salads. There's another one too that I've forgotten the name of. It's a bagel and soup place with good sandwiches, and the bonus is I can take a few bagels for the plane. And I must single out urban California for living up to its stereotype with a wide availability of healthy foods.


Lord Hutton said...

I'm not sure if grains should form the bulk in that pyramid. Humans have only had around 5000 years eating grains.

david said...

Lord Hutton: that's probably true only for modern, cultivated grains; I suspect that seeds in general have been a major part of the human diet since before homo sapiens emerged (early humans were probably more gatherers than hunters).

Aviatrix: why not try the supermarket? With a little creativity, you can make a lot of meals on the road without even requiring a microwave. You'll do even better if you bring your own salad dressing with you (I haven't gotten to that point yet). A tin mess kit and a good bread knife might also help.

Anonymous said...

We were just on a trip to the US and ate at Sweet Tomato both driving down and back up. Izzy's is another buffet that has some decent food. Not as much salad as Sweet Tomato, but enough, and in some of the locations we've been, the hot food is fresh and not too processed.

Aviatrix said...

I try the supermarket thing from time to time, especially when we're staying in a place with at least a refrigerator and a microwave, but there are three main problems:
1. Time: the duty day doesn't leave much time for shopping and food preparation. We had a team member once who was preparing his own meals in his room to try and save money, and we were always waiting for him.
2. Teamwork and work flow: our mealtime conversations are important to the job and the cohesion of the team, plus we don't necessarily return to the mission base hotel after every flight. We may refuel both the plane and the crew somewhere else.
3. Mobility: no sooner do I buy some perishables than I'm told I'm flying across the country again, and they have to be thrown out before or after they perish. Watch Aviatrix do breakfast triage, deciding which foods will survive the trip, which foods are so delicious that she will stuff herself with them now, and which ones go straight in the bin.

I have eaten a lot of bananas and bagels, though. Apparently the banana is going extinct, but it's not because I'm eating them all, honest.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the reasons that I dislike travel - particularly business travel. I've done so much of it and getting good, simple, fresh, nutritious food is so hard. For some reason places like the US, Australia and NZ seem worse than places like Italy. In Asia I eat where the streetworkers - taxi drivers and the like - eat. It's fast, simple, high turnover and cheap.
Room service in mid-range hotels in Australia has descended to a disgraceful level. Even the apparently "good" choices are full of fat. And I haven't even started on the rubbish that is passed off as coffee in many places.
It is doubly hard if you have food limitations. Getting what you need is probably harder than finding food if you are a Kalahari Bushman!


Anonymous said...

You might consider "MRE"'s for ready to eat meals when you're on the fly. They probably won't be great for every day use but having one in your flight bag doesn't take up much space and provides a quick 1100-1800 calories in a (pretty) well balanced meal. Most of them are VERY good and you can "share" the ones you hate. :) You can usually get a package of 12 full meals for about $70 or $80 (USD) Which really isn't that expensive. They're extremely shelf stable and highly temperature tolerant. I usually keep a couple tucked under the seat in my truck in case I get stuck somewhere at a mealtime. I could see it being useful if you get stuck dealing with maintenance or flight planning while others make a food run. Just be careful NOT to get the ones with heaters as the heaters are chemical and activated by adding water. Probably not legal for carry on. :)

Anonymous said...

How true.

I am seeking out the chain sub shops and having them build a sandwich to something that won't kill me. Some of them have pretty good dietetic menus.


Anonymous said...

Ah, MRE's! I miss the dry ones. The heaters I think I recall also release hydrogen. Save em for seatwarmers and survival situations.
A good, fresh bagel (never from a plastic wrapper or frozen) will dry out without getting moldy unless you get it damp and keep it that way. Good wayfarer's bread, just break or saw it up bite-sized and bag it for easy eating in the saddle, as it were. We used to take corn nuts and jerky, or those "diet bars" with 246 cals each and plenty of vitamins etc., into the field. (No choco coating, gets on the fingers).
Av, my experience also is that not only does the shared table build the human bonds you need in a team, it's how we tend to reward ourselves for a day well done, or console ourselves for a day gone to excremento. "Everyone gets to eat, everyone has a place to sleep, and everyone gets a ride home"...the rest is mere frippery (like getting paid).

dpierce said...

I sympathize. I travel for business quite a bit in the US and the UK, and other places to a lesser extent. I've taken to carrying granola bars, fruit, peanuts, and jerky with me, pecking at that throughout the day.

We also have the big end-of-day wrap up meals at restaurants, and I'm usually tempted to order something "bad" like steak (and always did in my 20's), but I've learned to genuinely enjoy salads, fish, and fresh veggies. I have no problem asking the wait "What do I have to do to get _____" if I want something non-menu -- being a little awkward is preferable by far to miserable in your hotel room that night. If the group winds up at a BBQ joint or local fried food haven, you just have to admit defeat.

It is a myth, though, that the US is a sea of fat and carbs while the rest of the world is a uniform cornucopia of healthy greenery. The US is guilty of enormous portion sizes, but finding a healthy meal in a village in Oxfordshire is a fantasy. Even my beloved Japan is fairly carb-heavy -- great for a population that used to spend all day on foot, but not so good for a guy who will spend all day in the back seat of a car.

Anonymous said...

So that's why I have a forward CoG problem in my Beechcraft!