Happy Meals and convenient salad

let convenience be your friend when it comes to salad

McDonald’s led off the focus on kids’ nutrition this week with the announcement that the (in)famous Happy Meal was going on a diet.  Specifically, the portion of french fries will be cut in half, and sliced apples will be included automatically, without the sugary caramel dipping sauce (yay!).  Low fat milks will also be included.  Another option – substitute another portion of apples for the fries.  So kids can get a cheeseburger-apple slices-low fat-milk meal.  This is a welcome change.  It will be interesting to see sales figures, once the changes go into effect.

I’m guessing sales will be strong.  Apparently the hottest selling item at Applebee’s is now one of the Under 550 meals — the Sirloin and Shrimp entree.  It clocks in at 51 grams of protein (practically a whole day’s intake) and 500 calories.  Slowly, restaurants are figuring out that customers will order menu items that are “healthier” or lower in calories, if those items taste good.  The days of the cottage cheese plate are hopefully gone for good.

Speaking of healthy eating and kids, I learned about the Papaya Head website (www.papayahead.com) through a study program on restaurant menu labeling.  The site focuses on healthy eating for families.  One feature is nutritional analysis of your own recipes, as well as advice on meals, shopping and recipes.  It’s free, but registration is required.

Unfortunately, Papaya Head doesn’t actually do the shopping, cooking and cleaning up for you.  That seems to be the catching point for plenty of people when it comes to healthy eating.  According to data from the NPD group, the average American eats a green salad an average of only 36 times/year.  That’s less than once per week.  The perceived barrier – all the fuss and bother necessary to making a salad.  Food companies are trying to step into this gap, with bagged pre-washed lettuce or an entire bagged ready-to-eat salad.  The salad rut is apparently partly to blame – people just keep serving the same old salad with the same old favorite bottled dressing, and it just gets boring.  Then there’s the perceived price premium. Pre-washed greens and cut up veggies look so much more expensive per pound than un-prepped vegetables.

I’m a very big fan of using convenience to encourage healthier food choices.  So think about it this way: if you buy a head of lettuce, how much of it do you throw away?  How much time do you spend washing and cutting it up?  What’s your time worth?  The same is true for vegetables.  It might look cheaper to buy a bag of carrots or a head of broccoli, but once you peel and trim those, the cost of the edible parts is much closer to the cost of the pre-cut vegetables.  I once compared the cost of boneless chicken breasts to bone-in (cheaper) ones.  After removing the bones and skin, the cost of the boneless meat turned out to be exactly the same, without the annoyance and mess of cutting up raw chicken.

If using pre-washed, pre-cut vegetables means you’re more likely to eat salad, then go for it.  Green salad is a great excuse for olive oil (healthy fat!) dressing, and it’s a great source of potassium, magnesium and other minerals and vitamins unique to vegetables.

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