What a healthy meal should look like
While we wait for more restaurants to embrace bigger servings of veg, how can we make eating out healthier?
There's a rough guide to how healthy meals should look. It goes like this: about one-quarter of the plate must be lean protein, such as fish, poultry, meat, nuts or legumes. Another quarter should be starchy food, such as whole grains. 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 towards 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,'' a reader recently fumed, annoyed at having to pay more for what she believes should be an integral part of a balanced 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 joint. But I do think restaurants that practise vegetable tokenism - such as 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,'' a dietitian, Emma Stirling, says. ''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 vegetables, including increasing use of vegetables such as 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,'' she says. ''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.''
There are also signs that nutrition science and the restaurant industry are edging closer together, Stirling adds. Last year, the Culinary Institute of America worked with the US National Institutes of Health to produce a heart-healthy cookbook, while Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island is offering the first degree that qualifies graduates to work as both chefs and nutritionists.
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 important to ask questions about how dishes are prepared. A restaurant might be big on showcasing veg but you could find that your heirloom carrots are cooked in duck fat, Stirling points out. 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. 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.
If eating out were a special event, a vegie-poor meal would be no big deal - after all, there's a role for eating out as a culinary experience, Stirling says. 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.