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Food for thought: Deputy mayor launches next Healthy St. Pete dine-around

ST. PETERSBURG

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin wants to take you to dinner.

She's not saying she's picking up the check, but on Nov. 9, she will debut the next installment of her "Virtual Progressive Dinners," this one on the city's west side. Part of her Healthy St. Petersburg program, the idea is that participating restaurants offer drinks, appetizers, main courses or desserts that focus on healthier, lighter preparations. Yes, St. Petersburg has become nearly synonymous with craft beer and artisanal cheeseburgers, but these dinners celebrate more healthful fare.

"We've targeted restaurants with large followings and that have menus that lend themselves to this," Tomalin said recently. "The idea is to create a map that covers the entire city."

The first virtual dinner focused on 20 establishments right downtown, including Florida Trend Golden Spoon award winners like the Mill, Forbes Travel Guide highlights like the Birchwood's rooftop bar, and multiple contenders in the Tampa Bay Times Top 50 Restaurants of 2016 list, along with EAT Healthy Ambassador chef-led restaurants Stillwaters Tavern and Parkshore Grill.

Tomalin is not asking anyone to eschew bacon or deep-fried mac and cheese entirely, but rather to devote more time to thoughtful eating. But from downtown to the Edge District, Grand Central, Fourth Street and the west side, this increasingly "foodie" city has loads of options for locally sourced, organic, gluten-free, low-fat, veggie-centric and just less caloric dishes.

The Healthy St. Petersburg initiative, launched last May, is a multi-pronged effort to promote healthy behaviors and habits.

"Philosophically, the first step is people buying in. That's the prerequisite for having a sustainable impact," Tomalin said. "The program came into being because I come from a health care background. This is about attacking social and financial inequities, with a goal of shifting the culture."

That's a heavy-duty objective, one achieved by debuting a test kitchen at the Childs Park Recreation Center and partnering with several chefs and local celebrities. It's achieved by starting partnerships with University of Florida extension offices and with the Saturday Morning Market and by launching a healthy vending policy — all items sold in city-operated vending machines now meet American Heart Association standards. It's achieved by identifying local Eat Healthy Ambassadors and working toward a program that offers healthy options in local convenience stores.

So how is progress measured? Through a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Institute, there is a County Health Ranking every year. According to Tomalin, when the Healthy St. Pete program began, Pinellas County was 33rd out of 67 Florida counties in terms of overall health.

"This year we're 26th."

St. Petersburg residents and visitors can do their part by visiting healthystpetefl.com/vpd and planning dinner. There are four discrete downtown dine-around options, complete with cocktail, appetizer, entree and dessert suggestions, as well as the new maps for West St. Pete Central and West St. Pete Tyrone. When the deputy mayor says get eating, and make it something healthy, it's practically your civic duty.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.

Take matters into your own hands

Virtual Progressive Dinner or not, eating healthier is within your grasp. We dine out for many reasons and one of them is this: blissful ignorance. We know this dish tastes better than what we make at home and that butter, salt and cream are implicated, but shh, no need for full disclosure. We are drawn to restaurants for their solicitous service and convivial atmosphere, but also for their deliciously unspecified quantity of saturated fat. If your aim is to make dining out waistline-friendly, there are smart — and dumb — strategies for how and what to order.

Smart

• Rip a page out of the Weight Watchers manual by asking for sauces and salad dressings on the side; dip a bite in just enough to add "oomph." Better yet, dip your empty fork in the sauce, then spear the food.

• Not all vegetables equal automatic virtue: gratins, mashed potatoes and frittatas are fat and calorie havens. Ask for veggies steamed without added fat. Lemon wedges are your friend, adding a blast of flavor without accompanying calories.

• Shoot for grilled items or braised dishes. Despite their perceived richness, in such entrees lean cuts of meat are slowly cooked with stock and vegetables to add tenderness and flavor.

• Don't be afraid to ask your server how a dish is prepared. "Crispy" and "golden" are obvious code words for fried, but there are lots of tricky menu terms that your server can help decode.

Dumb

• Scrimping on potatoes, pasta and other old beaus only to load up on liquid calories. A 5-ounce glass of wine hits about 100 calories; count on 250 if you split a bottle with your date. A typical pina colada packs more calories (more than 600!) than a Big Mac.

• Letting the restaurant dictate your portions. Have the waiter bring a to-go container along with the entree, and pack up the excess for another meal before you start eating.

• Denying yourself the fun of eating out because you're on a diet. If you want your healthy habits to become permanent, you're better off learning moderation away from home, too.

• Jumping on the scale the next morning to punish yourself after overdoing it at dinner. Resume your healthy habits instead. Restaurant food is often salty, so the scale may register temporary water weight.

If you go

Visit healthystpetefl.com to see Virtual Dine Around Maps. In the new West St. Pete Central maps, restaurants include D'Mexican, Craft Kafe, Alésia and O'Bistro. The West St. Pete Tyrone includes Square 1 St. Pete, Athenian Garden, CD Romas and D'Lites Emporium.

Food for thought: Deputy mayor launches next Healthy St. Pete dine-around 11/01/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 1, 2016 6:55pm]
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