You might think that someone who deals with health news for a living would be pretty good at finding the healthy options on a restaurant menu.
And you would be right — only some of the time.
A few days after Christmas, we were riding our bikes around downtown St. Petersburg when hunger struck. It was a beautiful day, so we wheeled our bikes up to Moon Under Water, and got a table outside, along scenic Beach Drive.
I wanted a treat, seeing as it was the holidays and I had just burned up all those calories on the bike. But I didn't want to go completely nuts. So I passed up the fish and chips, and selected a cup of soup and a salad.
Granted, the salad was a Cobb, with blue cheese and bacon. So I compensated by getting a half-order.
It was, by the way, really good.
On Monday night, I went back to visit with Moon Under Water owner Alan Lucas, who invited me to check out this neat computer program he has developed so his patrons can find the nutrition information in all his menu items. The computer has been there since November, but as it is inside, and on my visit I was outside, I missed it entirely.
It's easy to use. Just touch the icons on the computer screen, choose your items, hit "print,'' and presto, there's your damage. My half-salad weighed in at 1,436 calories, plus 200 for the cup of Thai crab curry soup.
Which I could burn in six hours of cycling.
I won't even tell you how much fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugar was in my meal, though it's all there in the computer.
Lucas kindly stepped in and showed me more features of the software he developed and plans to sell to other independent restaurants. We started with one that shows you which menu items fall within specific calorie ranges. For a much more respectable 300 to 500 calories, for instance, I could have had chicken curry with rice (474), which I've enjoyed there in the past. Or a tandoori chicken sandwich (476), the tuna sashimi (327) or a veggie burger (387), just to name a few.
Then we looked at another function that lets people with allergies determine which items contain, for instance, wheat.
Since Lucas installed the computer in November, around 700 people have used it. He developed the system not out of personal health concerns and not to frighten the customers, but to get in front of a coming trend: restaurants posting nutrition information.
He has shown the program to state Rep. Ed Homan of Tampa, an orthopedic surgeon who supports legislation that would require chain restaurants to post nutrition facts. Even if legislation affects only chains, Lucas thinks consumers will expect this data everywhere.
In their TV ads, "Applebee's are starting to say they're healthy, and are showing meals under 500 calories. If independents don't catch up on this, they're going to be left behind,'' he said.
Why not just list calorie counts on the menu?
"The thing about our system is you're not doing mathematics at the table. We allow our customers to go up and use it themselves. On Saturday, I was having dinner, and people were queuing up to use it.''
As I discovered, you can still find plenty of high-calorie choices at Moon Under Water. But there have been subtle changes. Lucas has found substitutes for particularly high-sodium stocks and crackers, for instance. "We re-engineered a little of our menu to make it a little healthier,'' he said.
Mostly, the system is all about educating consumers.
"Somebody last week wanted to know about chicken curry with rice, and they were surprised to see it's only about 500 calories,'' he said.
"When you actually get the hard facts out, most of the time it's different than what you thought it was.''