By Victoria G. Molinar
December 30, 2013
It’s not uncommon to see food high in salt, sugar and fat on the children’s menus in most restaurants. From corn dogs to fries to macaroni drenched in cheese, these items on the menu might satisfy hungry kids, but they can also significantly shorten their lives.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in the past 30 years, the obesity rate in children has doubled. Such startling obesity rates are what drove El Paso’s Department of Public Health to step in and ensure that children will have the chance to make healthier choices.
“If the current rates continue in childhood obesity, children who were born after the year 2000 are probably not going to outlive their parents because they’re going to have to deal with all kinds of chronic conditions that we don’t even know about,” said Leos, project coordinator for the department’s new program, Eat Well! El Paso.
Funded by the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, the Eat Well! El Paso program aims to raise awareness about today’s dietary health scares and educate locals about better choices that can be made when it comes to cooking at home or dining out. Much of the Department of Public Health’s focus is on children, especially with their restaurant initiative, which provides a healthier menu for them.
“We are having 9, 10, and 11 year olds dealing with heart disease, with high blood pressure, with diabetes, and that can be prevented with simple changes in diet or physical activity,” said Leos. “We need to do something for our kids because so many times, they don’t have a choice; they do what we tell them to do.”
The services provided, from the advising to the graphic design of the menu, are free of cost for participating restaurants. Owners and chefs who choose to get involved with the initiative meet with a registered dietitian. After analyzing the children’s menu, the dietitians help come up with a revised, healthier version. Sugar-sweetened beverages are removed and depending on what level the restaurant chooses to participate in, a certain amount of vegetable entrees or sides are added. Despite the idea that a healthier menu might mean a more costly one, the dietitian also aims to utilize the restaurant’s available resources to save time and money.
“Our nutrition professionals are fantastic in that they’re going to use what you already have,” said Leos. “They don’t want to make an extra expense out of what you’re doing.”
After coming up with a few healthy kids’ meals, a graphic designer works with the owner to design a visually appealing menu. On the back of the menu is information about the Eat Well! El Paso mission.
Leos said that at first, many restaurants were apprehensive about participating, but once they realized how quick and simple the process was, they jumped on board. Although the list of the involved restaurants is slowly growing, the variety is wide not only in location, but in price range and food type as well.
The Green Ingredient, a fairly new restaurant located inside the downtown Chase building, has gained much attention for its high health standards. From using locally grown organic fruits and vegetables to offering raw and vegan dishes, the small restaurant has become the go-to place for those who are searching for energizing, nutritious meals. When designing the children’s menu, they kept it simple: organic baked chicken strips or a roasted wild-caught salmon filet are served with brown rice and a side of vegetables with homemade dip. For vegetarians, there is the option of a quinoa avocado salad with a side fruit salad.
Even some hole-in-the-wall type restaurants joined the healthy movement, which Leos said she felt was especially important.
“I need to think about the rest of the population that are going to the little mom and pop restaurants because it’s cheap and they can get a comida corrida for five dollars,” said Leos.
People might not expect that Chubb’s BBQ, a soul food restaurant located on 5810 Dyer, would have healthy items on the menu, but its children’s menu proves otherwise.
“Me being a heavy kid myself, I wish I would have had better choices,” said Chubb’s BBQ owner Curtis Vaughn. “So far, I’ve had a couple of people eat off the Eat Well menu, and they really like it. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Despite the healthier take on the children’s dishes, Vaughn maintained the southern comfort theme. Sweet potatoes, steamed green beans and boiled cabbage served alongside a broiled tilapia fillet or grilled chicken keep the children satisfied while maintaining Eat Well! El Paso’s healthy standards.
Located on 6298 Alameda, Moe’s Mexican Restaurant, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary, has been serving lower valley El Paso since before owner Bonnie Dominguez was born. They kept the burger and chicken strips that they previously had on the children’s menu, but switched the fries with fruit and vegetable sides and replaced the sodas with 100 percent fruit juice boxes.
“It’s a national trend now, getting healthier options, especially for children,” Dominguez continued, whose father started the restaurant. “I’m happy to see El Paso be proactive about this. Ever since we brought out our [new children’s] menu, there’s been a positive response.”
Restaurants that are participating so far include:
Moe’s Restaurant 6298 Alameda 79905, 915-779-9542
The Green Ingredient 201 E. Main St. 79901, 915-298-1010
The Pizza Joint 2900 N. Mesa 79902, 915-533-4066
Chubb’s BBQ 5810 Dyer 79904, 915-471-8019
Casa Pizza 1311 Magruder 79925, 915-775-2010
Forti’s Mexican Elder 321 Chelsea 79905, 915-772-0066
Los Aguachiles 7500 N. Mesa, #107 79912, 915-585-7588
Mambo’s Restaurant 6401 Alameda 79905, 915-239-0649
Sam’s Chinese Restaurant 1501 E. Yandell 79902, 915-577-0961
Gonzolo’s G&R Restaurant 401 E. Nevada 79902, 915-546-9343
Mi Pueblo Nuevo Restaurant 5630 Gateway E. 79905, 915-781- 7333
Visit home.elpasotexas.gov/health/eat-well-restaurant-initiative.php or call 915-771-5845. Submit restaurant suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org .