Eating Out

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Lately, there’s been much talk about taking steps to prevent getting conditions like diabetes by practicing more healthful habits. It isn’t always easy to do so, especially in these days when nobody can afford to stay home and cook meals from scratch, as my mother did when I was growing up.

Then, again, there were no fast-food restaurants, no convenience foods at the grocery store, and people pretty much knew how to cook. In fact, when Mom began to work outside the home when I was about 10 years old, I was the one to take over dinner preparation. That was in the day when people even had to cut up their own chicken.

Today? Well, just let me give you an illustration: A few days ago, I asked my 16-year-old granddaughter to heat up a can of soup. She appeared with the soup in one hand and a can opener in the other. Turns out she didn’t know how to use a can opener. (Hey! Not my fault. She doesn’t live with me.)

So people can’t or don’t have time to cook. Is eating out any better? Not always. Take the time my husband and I took our (much younger) grandchildren to one of those chain buffet places. The children liked it because it had a large variety of foods to choose from and they could put however much — or little — they wanted on their plates.

OK. They liked it for the well-stocked dessert bar.

While we were waiting to be seated, I told them they could have dessert only after they had eaten at least two vegetables. By which, I had to explain to the 8-year-old, I meant two selections of vegetables — not, literally, two vegetables. And by vegetables, I further explained, I meant vegetables. Not starches.

I had to eat my words and they got to eat dessert anyway. There were no vegetables. Oh, there were green beans and broccoli, all right. But even I, who grew up on “Southern style” (translation: overcooked) green beans and broccoli, wouldn’t touch those cooked-to-mush, floating-in-fat, only slightly green, so-called vegetables that may have contained a nutrient at some point. However, not now.

The salad bar wasn’t much better: A bowl of iceberg lettuce was surrounded by mayonnaise-laden concoctions and a selection of accouterments — like cheese, bacon… well, you get the idea. There was also a bowl of Caesar salad. Unfortunately, it already had the dressing added. Rather, the dressing had some romaine lettuce in it. I don’t know about you, but I like to taste the lettuce when I eat salad.

Basically, the food in this place was either fried in a liberal amount of fat, or it was mixed with what a former colleague used to jokingly refer to as “hydrogenated yellow stuff “— for it couldn’t possibly have ever been cheese.

The place is popular. The huge dining room was full and there was a line of people waiting to get in. It’s been like that every time I’ve gone (which isn’t often, and not for several years now). I can see why it’s popular with the masses: It’s inexpensive, and you can eat your fill.

But, even with its dozens of selections and its bottomless plates of food, you could starve if you were determined to eat a healthy, low-fat, well-balanced meal.

My husband couldn’t understand the point I was trying to make with the children when I insisted that they eat some vegetables. Corn, he said by way of an explanation, is a vegetable.

Yes, I admitted, it is. But it’s a starch. And the children need to begin understanding now the difference between vegetables and vegetables that are classified as starches.

“Their great-great grandmother,” I explained, “had diabetes. Their great-grandfather has diabetes. Their grandmother has diabetes. Their mother has diabetes. And that puts them at very high risk for getting diabetes. They at least need to learn what some of the differences are in foods and what is — and isn’t — healthy.” I’m talking Type 2 diabetes here.

It isn’t easy to choose healthier foods when you’re eating out. Even in the restaurants that are a step or two up from the aforementioned buffet, you have to maneuver through a minefield of less-than-desirable (er, healthwise, that is) menu items to find the items that are labeled as being “healthy.” And then they bring you a basket of steaming hot, buttery rolls with that.

What’s the answer to this nation’s fixation on eating itself to death? Maybe literally? If you know, please tell me, because I haven’t a clue. Maybe the government should tax hamburgers and fries instead of alcohol. After all, research has shown that a drink or two a day can lower the risk of diabetes. I don’t recall ever seeing a study that says the same thing about ‘burgers and fries.

Eat out only at upscale restaurants? I can tell you why the food tastes so good at those places. In one word: Butter.

Have you ever watched the Food Network? I used to think it should be called the Emeril Network, because Chef Emeril Lagasse seemed to be on every time I turned to that channel — extolling the pleasures of adding “pork fat” to food. And getting cheers from the audience when he did so. (Also when he added more butter.) Segments on healthy cooking? Sure, there are a couple. In the middle of the day. When few people are watching.

Even getting a nice, “healthy” salad can be a minefield. Go ahead: Check out the nutritional information for your favorite fast-food or restaurant salad. Chances are it contains more calories than you ever believed could be in a salad.

The fact is, restaurants serve what people want to eat. And people apparently want to eat lots of what the experts say we should only be eating a little bit of.

The key is to be informed. I still eat my favorites, just not very often and not very much when I do. It helps, too, that I still can’t play in the kitchen very well, my granddaughter can’t use a can opener, and my grandson looks at me with horror when I ask him to heat something up on the stove instead of nuking it.

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