When a customer eats out for dinner, trying to select a healthy menu item can be a veritable dietary minefield.
A wrap can seem like a healthier choice than a burger or chicken sandwich with chips, but evaluating what choice is better than the other often goes beyond the brief description provided by restaurants.
That's why New Richmond's Vitality Initiative is working with local restaurants to scientifically evaluate menu items and give its approval to various recipes.
Teresa Kvam, who is a public health nutritionist with St. Croix County, and Mary Jo Brunner, corporate dietitian with Family Fresh Market, have spent countless hours in recent months getting the restaurant project underway.
Three local restaurants were the first to sign on for the Vitality Initiative effort. Jet's Coffee Bistro, Wild Badger Sports Bar and Rooster's Road House have identified several items on each of their menus that will soon carry the "V.I. Approved" label.
Jonathan Timm, owner of Jet's, said he was happy to take part in the community's "Eat Wisely" campaign to make it easier for customers to spot healthy choices.
Items like the bistro's veggie wrap and cucumber panini fit within the guidelines of the Vitality Initiative, Timm said, and will eventually carry the V.I. sticker so customers can quickly identify a healthy choice.
"I want to be part of promoting a healthier community," he said.
Cyndy Kastner, co-owner of Rooster's Road House, agreed. She said her establishment is known for its fish fry and burgers, which don't qualify as heart-healthy selections, but the menu also includes some items that are easy on the calories and light on the fat.
"We wanted to get the word out that we have other things on the menu," she said. "Plus I just think it's a good idea to have alternative choices for customers."
Gary Zielsdorf, executive chef at Wild Badger, said he also wants people to know that his establishment offers more than just stereotypical "bar food."
At least three things on the Wild Badger menu will be labeled as V.I. approved, including a southwest salad, a barbequed chicken flatbread sandwich and its signature pulled pork sandwich.
Zielsdorf said the restaurant only had to make a few changes to some selections in order to meet the dietary requirements for V.I. approval, but customers will not be able to tell the difference in the taste.
"We wanted to be involved in this community project," he said, "and get our name out there that we're not just a bar."
The restaurants involved in the V.I. process submitted their recipes to Kvam and Brunner, who did extensive evaluation of the menu items to see if they qualified.
To be "approved" items, an entree had to be less than 700 calories, have less than 23 grams of fat and total less than 800 milligrams of sodium. Side dishes had to be below 300 calories, 10 grams of fat and 400 milligrams of sodium in order to be considered. Appetizers had to fall below 350 calories, 10 grams of fat and 400 milligrams of sodium to be approved. Kids' meals with less than 600 calories, 15 grams of fat and 600 milligrams of sodium were approved.
The guidelines were established after Kvam and Brunner consulted various scientific studies and federal nutrition guidelines.
"I do think that the general public has little understanding about what's 'healthy,'" Brunner said. "Dietitians and the general public will have different definitions. Unfortunately the general public is fed information by the media and others who don't have the education or credentials to be giving them accurate, sound information."
Brunner said she hopes the new V.I.-approved project will help the public identify what's healthy and what isn't on local menus. She said she knows that some people will continue to select menu items that aren't as healthy, but it's important that a few alternatives are available for those wanting to eat wisely.
"I hope that people will be excited and thankful that they can enjoy going out to eat but have options for better choices," she said.
Kvam said restaurant owners and chefs had to slightly tweak some recipes to meet the guidelines, but it wasn't too difficult to identify a few items on each menu.
"Our goal is to provide healthy options that are easily identifiable for our residents," Kvam said. "They can just look for our symbol, and they'll know that we've already evaluated it as a healthy choice."
Kvam admitted that some local restaurants already have healthy choices identified on their menus, but Vitality Initiative volunteers want to standardize a sticker system that area residents can quickly understand and rely upon.
"We all eat out, and sometimes you want that special treat," Kvam said. "But other times you want to make the best choice you can. This is a quick way to know that calories, fat and sodium have been checked out."
Kvam said those working on the community effort don't tell restaurants what to do, they are simply trying to help the operators and their customers. Sometimes getting a menu item to qualify for V.I. approval simply means having to cut down on the pickles or scaling back on the mayo. Other times its grilling the meat rather than frying it.
"We are just providing the education that will help make our community healthier," Kvam said.
Now that the V.I. effort has been launched, Kvam said she hopes many other local restaurants will choose to be a part of the project in the future. Kvam and Brunner, thanks to support from their employers, are able to dedicate some of their time to continue working with local establishments.
"We really want to grow this program," Kvam said. "We aren't trying to come in and be nutrition Nazis. We want to help make the best choice the easy choice. We just want to help."
Participating restaurants will be included in Vitality Initiative promotional items related to the restaurant effort. Participating restaurants will also be identified by V.I. window clings and menu stickers.
The Vitality Initiative is a volunteer, community-interest group that has taken on the challenge of making New Richmond a healthier place to live and work. For the past three years, the group has been working to promote efforts to help area residents eat wisely, be active and get connected in the community.
Anyone wishing to join the Vitality Initiative group can contact President Tate Wheeler at twheeler30 a.m. at the New Richmond Civic Center.