There’s a rough guide to what healthy meals should look like that goes like this: around one quarter of the plate is taken up by lean protein like fish, poultry, meat or legumes; a starchy food like whole grains takes up another quarter of the plate; and the remaining half is filled with vegetables. It’s the opposite of those restaurant dishes starring protein in the centre of the plate plus a few rocket leaves that go nowhere to meeting a daily target of five serves of veg. Do some restaurants think we’re a bunch of fussy four-year-olds who won’t eat our greens?
“The vegetable portion of the meal is often relegated to an optional extra - for an added price - or not offered at all,” fumed a Sydney Morning Herald reader recently, annoyed at having to pay more for what she thinks should be an integral part of a meal. “The complete dining experience becomes far more expensive … the $30-35 main meal becomes a $40-45 main meal. Do restaurants have to take some accountability when it comes to the national obesity epidemic?”
I’m not sure how much restaurants are to blame for our spreading waistlines – we can always vote with our feet and order dishes with stir-fried veg at the local Thai. But I do think restaurants that practice vegetable tokenism (like the one that gave me three lonely string beans with my main course recently) are guilty of downgrading vegetables.
“In many restaurants vegetables aren’t the heroes on the plate they should be,” agrees Accredited Practising Dietitian Emma Stirling from Scoop Nutrition. “From a nutritionist’s point of view, it’s best to put vegetables on the plate rather than on the side because it’s a barrier for some people if they have to pay extra.”
But it’s not all bad news. Stirling knows a thing or two about restaurants – one of her jobs is educating restaurant staff about food allergies – and she senses a change in the air in favour of veg, including a rise in the use of vegetables like kale, cavallo Nero (Tuscan cabbage) and heirloom carrots.
“In defence of chefs I’d also say they don’t all fit the roly poly stereotype - there’s a lot of savvy, fit younger chefs around too. I think that chefs and nutritionists share some common ground - we both like fresh ingredients with minimal processing,” she says.
There are also signs that nutrition science and the restaurant industry are edging closer together, she adds. Last year the Culinary Institute of America worked with the US National Institutes for Health to produce a heart healthy cookbook, while Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island is offering the first degree that qualifies graduates as both a chef and a nutritionist.
But while we wait for more restaurants to embrace bigger servings of veg, how can we make eating out healthier?
Checking the menu online before you book is a start, but it’s also smart to ask questions about how dishes are prepared, Stirling says. A restaurant might be big on showcasing veg – but your heirloom carrots could be cooked in duck fat. A stir-fry on the menu might imply plenty of vegetables but could turn out to have three strips of carrot.
You can also boost the vegetable quota of a restaurant meal by ordering a salad as an entree and if you’re in a pub or a club, ask for a salad or steamed vegetables instead of chips – by substituting one for the other, you’re less likely to be charged extra, she says.
If eating out were a special event, a veggie-poor meal would be no big deal – after all, there’s a role for eating out as a culinary experience, says Stirling. But if you eat out two or three times a week, vegetables are important – and the more consumers speak up and ask for them, the more restaurants will listen, she says.
Is it fair for restaurants to charge extra for vegetables?