Beets boiled on a stove in the kitchen on a recent Friday at Curly’s Grill and Banquet Center in Lackawanna. Butter, garlic and heavy cream sat ready for use nearby.
Black beans, sea salt and packets of salmon were part of the kitchen accompaniments, too, as were plastic containers filled with walnuts, pickled onions and arugula.
What you order at Curly’s is your business, and, as is the case in most restaurants, it can range from the very fattening to the very healthy, with lots of points in between.
Chef Shea Zappia is more bent these days on making sure diners have healthy options, sounding like a man who will soon turn 30, and is looking out for the future of his wife, Antoinette, and their 1-year-old son, Macen.
“Starting out, I never was concerned about how much butter you put into something, how much cream, or how many carbs were on one dish,” Zappia said. “It probably wasn’t until I started hearing about healthy alternatives and I became a dad.
“It’s very easy to eat better. It really is.”
Curly’s is among more than 100 local restaurants riding the wave of healthy dining with help from the Healthy Options program. A growing number of his patrons want something “lighter, cleaner, refreshing,” Zappia said, and dietitians are taking a look at the ingredients the cook staff at the Ridge Road restaurant uses for its dishes, and recommending twists that can bring some of them into a healthier range.
“The goal is to show that you don’t have to have yogurt and salad every day to eat healthy,” said Carrie Meyer, executive director of the Independent Health Foundation, which launched and administers the Healthy Options program. The foundation provides free nutritional advice to participating restaurants, and helps promote them in exchange for the assurance they’ll serve some healthy choices.
Healthy Options at Curly’s include a tofu main dish, Jamaican jerk chicken sandwich and black bean soup. The restaurant also offers a daily Wolf Fit option: scallops, fish or boneless chicken with roasted fingerling potatoes, broccoli, peppers and sliced garlic, served in a chimichurri sauce on cast iron skillets. The dishes are inspired by Wolf Fitness.
Diners can take comfort knowing that dietitians have run the ingredients list through a nutrition software program when they see a Healthy Options seal on a local restaurant menu option, Meyer said. Portion size, calorie count, and fat and sodium content are among the key indicators.
But diners don’t have to go out for meals – or have Independent Health insurance coverage – to take advantage of dozens of tips on the Healthy Options website, healthyoptionsbuffalo.com, which includes a section on how to make a variety of ethnic foods healthier, whether cooking at home or out on the town.
Meyer and Zappia also provided the following tips diners can use to pursue or maintain better health:
1. Look to swap: “I’m always asking the server to modify,” said Meyer, for instance asking for a wrap instead of a sub roll, and fat-free or low-fat dressing, or if yogurt can be substituted for mayonnaise or sour cream. A cup of plain Greek yogurt has zero fat and 170 calories, she said, while a cup of sour cream has 45 grams of fat and 445 calories.
“All these restaurants are so great and so willing to modify any traditional recipe to make it a healthier option for people,” Meyer said, “but some people just don’t know to ask. They don’t know that a wrap is only 200 calories versus the roll, which is probably 600 calories. All those choices make a big difference on your waistline.”
2. Key ingredients: Consider ordering a main dish where vegetables are the star; one that also includes protein. Look to avoid “all-you-can-eat” buffets in favor of lone menu options, and skip dishes with cream sauces or gravies.
3. Split meals: “I think it’s a movement where you can start going out and ordering healthier food and splitting meals,” Meyer said. Portion control is key when it comes to proper eating. Before you split a meal, make sure you check with your server that there won’t be an additional sharing charge.
4. Less butter, better oil: Skip the butter and choose healthier oils that include extra virgin olive, grapeseed or coconut oils. Even those should be used sparingly, Zappia said, because they do add calories.
5. Table flours: Skip the bread, unless it’s whole grain, and wait to eat some until after you’ve munched on salad or protein. Your body metabolizes food differently, turning on the sugar-fat storage process right off the bat, when you start a meal with carbs. Also look to choose whole grain flours, instead of processed white flours, in appetizers and main dishes, Meyer said.
6. Don’t get fried: Deep fried foods add calories and unwelcome fats, Meyer said, and even a pan-fried dish when dining out comes with the prospect that it got loaded with butter. Steamed, grilled or broiled dishes are best.
7. Dress carefully: Choose light oil and vinegar-based salad dressings, and ask for them on the side so you can decide how much you need. Also consider mustard instead of ketchup; it has fewer calories and doesn’t contain one nasty ingredient that can often be at the top of a ketchup food label – high fructose corn syrup. And limit salt. Sodium adds water weight. If you must season dishes, try a plant-based spice like ginger, turmeric or several varieties of pepper.
8. Drink smart: Choose water or wine instead of pop or beer. Ask for a lemon and lime to give water extra zip.
9. Start small: If complete change is too overwhelming, Meyer said, start by choosing healthier drinks and swapping out one or two food choices. “You have to be able to enjoy food,” she said, “but you do have to have a balance.”
email: refresh@ buffalonews.com
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