Sept. 30--Patty Rangel, owner of Gonzalos G&R Restaurant displays three of the "Eat Healthy," plates that she serves at her restaurant. G&R is one of several area restaurants that are participating in the El Paso Department of Public Health's initiative to create and serve healthier children's menus. (Ruben R. Ramirez / El Paso Times)
Getting children to eat fruits and vegetables at home can be a chore for many parents. Getting them to choose healthful foods in restaurants can be near impossible, especially when french fries and macaroni and cheese are on the menu.
"Doesn't every parent have this problem?" said Sylvia Ibarra, an East Side parent of two. "Getting my boys to eat properly has to be one of the most difficult things to do. And then when we go out to eat, there are just so many bad things to choose from it makes it even easier for them to eat poorly. If you pick a side dish for them like asparagus or broccoli, they won't eat it."
The city of El Paso Department of Public Health is trying to do something about parents' dilemma with its Eat Well! El Paso Restaurant Initiative. It's a timely initiative, with September being National Childhood Obesity Month.
"There is a trend at both the state and national level for restaurants to offer healthier options, but many local owners do not have the resources available to create recipes that meet standard nutritional guidelines," said Sue Beatty, Health Education and Promotion manager.
With a $174,000 grant from the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, the health department is offering help and resources to any local restaurant interested in serving fresh, healthful foods on their children's menus.
"We have an issue with childhood obesity in this country and we want to find creative ways to address that," Beatty said.
The Eat Well! El Paso Restaurant Initiative is a free, voluntary program to increase healthful food choices for children by improving entree and side dishes, using healthier cooking methods and offering lower-calorie beverages.
"It's difficult for children to know how to choose something
Three plates that are served as part of the "Eat Well," program at G & R Restaurant. Patty Rangel, owner of G & R is participating in the El Paso Department of Public Health's initiative to create and serve healthier children's menus. (Ruben R. Ramirez / El Paso Times)
healthy and sometimes the parents don't understand that needs to be done," Beatty said. "So if they eat out at any of the restaurants in our program, when they see the children's menu, everything that they are seeing on that menu has been altered and made healthier."
Restaurants that participate in the program receive guidance from nutrition professionals to create a children's menu with healthful food selections.
"We are connecting them with professionals like registered dieticians who look at their current menu and do some analysis on how many calories, how much fat, sugar and sodium are on the current children's menu," she said. "Then they can make adjustments and suggestions to make their menu healthy."
Children who enjoy healthful foods may be less likely to join the growing number of their peers who face weight problems.
The rate of childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents over the past 30 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As of 2010, more than a third of U.S. children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
Under the Eat Well! initiative, a children's meal must meet established nutritional standards that include calorie, fat and sodium limits. Sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas are not allowed. Beverages OK under the program include 100 percent juice, low-fat or fat-free milk, and other unsweetened beverages such as water and tea.
So far, only five local restaurants are participating -- Mambo Restaurant, Sam's Chinese Restaurant, The Pizza Joint, Mi Pueblo Nuevo and Gonzalos G&R Restaurant.
"I think it's a great idea," said Patty Rangel, owner of Gonzalos at 401 E. Nevada. "I was kind of surprised there weren't more restaurants. It's a wonderful idea for kids and adults. I was a little surprised to see how easy it was for us to adjust."
Gonzalos has a hamburger, taco and enchilada plate on its children's menu.
"We substituted the refried beans with whole beans and instead of rice, we give them a choice of vegetables or fresh fruit," Rangel said. "The taco is not fried; it's a soft taco. The enchiladas are the same -- we don't fry them, we bake them."
She said it was not difficult for her cooks to change their methods.
"When you think about it, it's real easy to make things healthier," she said. "In Mexican food, if you cut out the lard, it cuts out a lot of the calories and that's better for you. If you start feeding the kids healthy meals at a young age, it becomes a habit."
Rangel said the children's meals are served with apple juice or low-fat milk.
The Pizza Joint offers three options: a child's slice of cheese pizza, a child's slice of pineapple and cheese pizza; and a veggie pizza with black olives, green bell peppers, red onions and mushrooms, served with a side of fruit, a side of fresh vegetables with low-calorie dip and 100 percent fruit juice.
"Health is a huge priority for us at The Pizza Joint," said Miki Girts, the manager at the West Side pizzeria. "We bake our wings; we don't fry them. Everything we have is done in-house and we try to get the freshest ingredients possible. It's all about being able to indulge a little bit but in a healthy way."
Girts said The Pizza Joint is well aware of the obesity epidemic and is doing its part to curb it by using quality ingredients.
"When we decided to do this, we wanted to have options for people with strict diets or limitations," he said. "We want to offer a delicious alternative for those people. Same goes for vegan and vegetarian options."
Victor R. Martinez may be reached 915-546-6128.
What: Eat Well! El Paso Restaurant Initiative.
Details: City of El Paso Department of Public Health will give guidance and provide nutritionists for local restaurants that want to put healthier and fresher foods on their children's menus.
Participating restaurants: Mambo Restaurant, 6401 Alameda; Sam's Chinese Restaurant, 1501 E. Yandell, 577-0961; The Pizza Joint, 2900 N. Mesa; Mi Pueblo Nuevo, 5630 Gateway East; and Gonzalos G&R Restaurant, 401 E. Nevada.
Information: Go to EPHealth.com and click on the special projects tab. Restaurant owners who would like to participate may contact Joy Leos at 771-5845.
(c)2013 El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)
Visit the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) at www.elpasotimes.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
Original headline: El Paso looks to put healthful choices on kids' menus
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