Healthy Dining Finder

Hi. I’m in Boulder, so please forgive me if this makes less sense than usual. This is my first time at such an altitude; I am pounding the water. I’m hoping to be in better shape in the morning.

The thin air is making my heart race. My pulse has been as high as 130 today just sitting still. I’ve totally lost the plot a few times today, too – I got all the way to the end of the hallway in the hotel and couldn’t figure out where 431 was…turns out you can’t get to it from the hall that starts at 401 and ends at 426. I stood there, confused, for a moment, then realized that 431 is not between 401 and 426. Amazing.

At any rate, I won’t be cooking for a few days, but I hope to have a restaurant to review in the next couple days. I have high hopes for a place we’re planning to visit, but in the meantime I wanted to note a restaurant industry-sponsored site that piqued my interest.

The idea behind The Healthy Dining Finder should be pretty clear from the site name. The site will go live in the summer. It’s a product of the National Restaurant Association.

Right now what’s available is a demonstration of how the site will work; basically, restaurant operators will submit nutrition information for “healthy” options on their menu (it’s not clear that there are any stipulations on what constitutes “healthy”) along with their restaurant’s location, cuisine, and price level information. Consumers will be able to search the information and find restaurants serving healthy fare nearby in the cuisine and at the price point they prefer.

I use the internet for this sort of thing all the time when going to a new city or visiting one I don’t know well. For me, the pastiche of results gleaned from the dining section of the local paper online, information from vegetarian sites like Happy Cow, reviews on Chowhound, and general thoughtful Googling nets a good batch of leads. From there, I usually track down what restaurant websites I can, or look for additional reviews or feedback for those I’ve picked up.

Would I use The Healthy Dining Finder? Honestly, it’s probably not for me, unless it is so successful that it becomes an unbelievably robust source of information. It would have to contribute something additional to what’s already available via the sources I’m already using. If it relies on operators to enter individual dishes – with nutrition information – the restaurants featured are likely to remain those that can manage to have nutrition analysis done on their meals, which for reasons of cost and logistics (a stable menu being one of the necessary limiters) will mostly be chains.

That’s not helpful to me personally for two reasons: first, chain restaurant menus are usually available on the web, and I can make a sufficient judgment of whether the restaurant will be suitable for me as a vegetarian without a nutrition analysis. Second, chain restaurants are generally of little interest to me in general, as I usually get a better, more nutritious, varied and interesting meal at a non-chain restaurant.

However, I am not typical. No matter how you count it, (and though a VRG poll found that 57% of Americans sometimes order a vegetarian entrée when dining out and every time someone I’ve just met finds out I’m a vegetarian, they say “oh, I’ve been trying to cut down and eat more vegetables…”) there are few of us. Healthy eaters, though, there should be more of than vegetarians. There should be plenty of those flexitarians around, newly recognized as just about as healthy as vegetarians.

People tend to care less about nutrition when dining out than when eating at home. So though I think this could be a helpful resource to someone with a fairly mainstream American diet who wants to make the best choice conveniently among a batch of widely available chains – and that is a large group of people – what’s at stake is how much interest there is in those options, how robust the information provided is, and how valued the convenience of the single site is.

I like the idea; I like that it could help people make better choices and eat healthier diets. I hope it thrives, from both the operations and consumer sides.

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