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Hold the fries, add the veggies, New Ulm residents say
The idea was to offer patrons a side salad or steamed vegetables in place of french fries. It was an idea that Virginia Suker Moldan, manager of the restaurant at New Ulm’s Turner Hall, thought would never fly. But she has been pleasantly surprised.
The Heart of New Ulm Project recently launched a series of videos featuring the “Menu Fairy” to help people make healthier choices when eating in restaurants. The “Menu Fairy” series follows a family of four as they sit down for dinner at a restaurant and consider their options. When they have questions about a healthful choice, they simply ask the spirited Menu Fairy, who drops in at their table with answers at the ready.
“In fact,” she said, “more people are ordering salads than french fries.”
Turner Hall made these and other heart-healthy options available on its menu about two years ago as part of Hearts Beat Back: The Heart of New Ulm (HONU) Project’s efforts to improve the nutrition environment and work with local restaurants. The goal is to make New Ulm a town where heart-healthy eating is second nature.
Suker Moldan admitted that when the restaurant program started, she was skeptical of it.
“Don’t get me wrong. I think offering healthy food is a good idea,” she said. “I just didn’t think people would be interested in ordering steamed vegetables or unsweetened beverages or burgers without the buttered bun.”
Turner Hall has an older clientele. “The guys are typically meat and french fries. But now they’re eating just as many salads as the ladies,” Suker Moldan said.
Turner Hall even offers low-fat or fat-free dressings for those salads to keep them healthy.
Restaurants earn designations
Rebecca Werner, community intervention dietitian for HONU, said 13 restaurants in New Ulm are participating in the program. More are getting on board all the time. Even fast-food chains McDonald’s and Subway are participating, as they have menu items and use cooking practices that meet HONU’s requirements for the program, Werner said.
New Ulm Medical Center (NUMC) dietitians assess each of the restaurants using a national assessment tool, and restaurants qualify by implementing heart-healthy practices. The restaurants can earn gold, silver or bronze designations. The designation depends on how many and which practices they implement, and they can proudly display their status on their door and/or menu.
To qualify at the bronze level, restaurants need to offer at least one vegetable side dish, one or more reduced-size entrée, fat-free or 1% milk, baked chips (if chips are offered), a fat-free or low-fat salad dressing, and a healthful side option and beverage with any kids’ meal.
To get on the silver list, restaurants must offer all of the bronze-level practices, plus offer buns and bread served without butter, olive oil and/or trans-fat-free margarine, whole-grain options (for example, whole-wheat bread or bun) and use healthier fat alternatives when cooking.
Turner Hall is one of five to earn the gold designation for meeting all the healthy practices. To earn the gold designation, restaurants must meet all the silver criteria, and also have one or more HONU-approved healthful dishes on their menu. Table tents or menu inserts at each restaurant encourage patrons to order healthful food selections.
Restaurants respond to demand
Like Sukar Moldan, Werner said she’s pleasantly surprised the community is embracing the effort whole-heartedly.
“I think people are coming to expect it,” she said. “They’re starting to look for heart-healthy options when they dine out.”
Not only that, more restaurants are adding heart healthy options to their menus because their patrons are asking for it, Werner added.
Videos feature ‘Menu Fairy’
As part of the program, HONU recently launched a series of videos featuring the “Menu Fairy” to help people make healthier choices when eating in restaurants.
The “Menu Fairy” series follows a family of four as they sit down for dinner at a restaurant and consider their options. When they have questions about a healthful choice, they simply ask the spirited Menu Fairy, who drops in at their table with answers at the ready.
“Eating out doesn’t have to mean eating extra calories, fat and sugar,” explained Rebecca Lindberg, a registered dietitian with the project. “Making a few healthful swaps in what you eat when you eat out can have a big impact on your health. The Menu Fairy presents simple and practical tips in a fun and engaging way that the whole family will enjoy.”
In one video, the Menu Fairy advises the family, anxious for chocolate cake for dessert, to order one slice and share it. In another, the Menu Fairy advises Mom to skip the soda and order a salad so she can lead by example.
Smartphones help make smart choices
Through November 25, restaurants are displaying table tents or menu inserts advertising the videos with a QR code that people can scan with their smartphones.
“They can pull it up at the table before ordering,” Lindberg said.
The videos are also available on HONU’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/HeartofNewUlm and air periodically on NUCAT. They vary in length from about 90 seconds to a little more than two minutes, Lindberg said. The Minnesota Beef Council provided a grant for producing the videos. Anyone with a personal question for the Menu Fairy can send it through the HONU Facebook page at www.facebook.com/HeartOfNewUlm.
For more information about Hearts Beat Back: The Heart of New Ulm Project, go to www.heartsbeatback.org.