Strategies for healthy eating while you're on vacation

Jones-Mueller
Jones-Mueller
Posted: June 15, 2012

IF VACATIONS and road trips usually add up to an overload of fast food and unhealthy snacking for your brood, don't fret. Thanks to a new mobile app, healthydiningfinder.com, you can follow healthy signposts along the highway and pick nutritious meals even in the casual and chain restaurants that tend to cluster around the theme parks and resorts where families descend. What you choose from these menus makes all the difference in the world.

If you want to scare yourself to death, go to livestrong.com and check out the calories and fat content in typical menu items from Burger King (Double Whopper, 900 calories) the Cheesecake Factory (Bistro Shrimp Pasta 2,290 calories,) and Panera Bread (Italian combo on ciabatta, 980 calories). The good news is, there are much healthier alternatives at these kinds of restaurants that won't leave you guilt-ridden and bloated.

Although she's passionate about eating well, Anita Jones-Mueller can't say the same for her two children, ages 10 and 17. Jones-Mueller, who has a master's degree in public health, founded Healthy Dining in 1990, first as a publishing house putting out a series of 19 Healthy Dining books focused on California, starting with San Diego, where she lives. The books sent consumers to restaurants where healthy dining choices were both available and delicious. "Even back then we got a great response," she recalled. "There were customers who were concerned about watching their weight and cholesterol but still wanted to eat out."

Over time, the company has gone digital; it now empowers users of the mobile site and smartphone app to make choices from some 400 restaurants enrolled in the program coast to coast. The way it works is simple: a small restaurant company pays about $1,000 for the year to have a Healthy Dining dietitian do a nutritional analysis of specific menu items, which are then promoted on healthydiningfinder.com.

A random sampling of the site delivered impressive results. Say you're taking a trip to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida this summer. Put in the park's ZIP code and 498 menu items pop up. All are designated Healthy Dining, some are Sodium Savvy and others part of the Kids LiveWell program, a branded partnership with restaurants that emphasizes kids meals with lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy. The list of restaurants spans a wide range, from casual spots like Chili's, Sizzler and Macaroni Grill to more fine- dining experiences at Seasons 52, Capital Grille and Roy's.

And the menu items sound pretty tasty. Who wouldn't want a shrimp cocktail and an eight-ounce sliced filet from Capital Grille or, for kids, a grilled chicken sandwich with corn and milk from Chili's? "The whole idea is to fuse culinary excellence with optimal health benefits," said Jones-Mueller.

She is working on a new mobile app to debut in the Philly region, in development with a Princeton, N.J., tech company called Viocare and funded by the National Institutes of Health. Thanks to the NIH, up to 25 local restaurants can get nutritional analysis for free, with spots like Rex 1516, Rose Tattoo, Fuel, R2L and 10 Arts already onboard. The new app, launching in the coming months, will let users put in their specific diet needs relating to conditions like diabetes and celiac and deliver dining options in the Philadelphia area.

Kitchenette strategies

Most families stay in a place with a kitchen to save money on some meals while on vacation, giving parents additional control over what the kids consume. Since everything's fine in moderation, you can counteract the ice cream or funnel cakes with a meal of grilled lean protein, fresh fruit and veggies and whole grains. "The first question I always ask about a vacation rental is, what kind of grill does it have?" said Elizabeth Karmel, a grilling expert and spokeswoman for Weber Sauces and Seasonings, which includes a line of just-add-juice marinade flavorings. Marinating meats and seafood adds flavor without adding calories.

Anthony Stewart, executive chef at Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Miami, likes to cook up healthy alternatives to popular foods. His chicken veggie burger has just a half-gram of saturated fat, one-tenth the amount loaded into a Carl's Jr. JalapeƱo Chicken Sandwich. Add a whole-wheat hamburger bun for a total of about 330 calories, half the calories in a Carl's Jr. sandwich (670). Grilling fruits and vegetables is another way to add flavor, color and nutritional wallop to a single cooking session, without adding a bit of heat to the kitchen.

"I've seen a much greater demand for healthy dining options over the past 20 years," said Jones-Mueller.

"Chefs are experimenting and kids are exposed to more kinds of food and ingredients than ever. It's our job as parents to help them get excited about what effect eating powerful foods can have on their bodies, athletic performance and learning ability."

Food and travel writer Beth D'Addono writes about authentic travel experiences at unchainedtravel.com.

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