What would you do? Serving healthy food at theme parks
Written by Robert Niles
America's facing an obesity epidemic. Our federal government's agricultural industrial policy has for decades encouraged agribusiness not to deliver healthy vegetables, fruit and meat in their raw forms to local markets, but to create heavily processed, inexpensive and plentiful food products that just happen to lack the nutritional value of their original forms. The various tax and farm subsidies that agribusiness enjoy have helped make it far less expensive for people to buy a fat-laden hamburger meal at McDonald's than to cook a healthy entree on their own. Multibillion-dollar marketing campaigns encourage Americans to suck down soda like it was water. Even the cheap plastic packaging that's been used to contain our cheap, processed foods is messing up our hormones.Tweet
Add it all up... and we're adding to our weight and waistlines.
In my ideal world, theme parks should be good citizens as well as fun places to spend a day (or more). They should be reducing waste and recycling more, using sustainable energy and building supplies, and paying employees living wages as they build great new rides and shows in well-themed immersive environments.
And they'd be serving good food, too.
Many parks serve excellent meals, and make a variety of healthy choices available to their visitors. Theme parks were among the first major consumer food-service businesses to drop trans fats from their menus. Count me as a fan of Legoland California's Upper Deck Sports Cafe, which serves an outstanding grilled salmon meal, which included some wonderfully tasty sauteed asparagus last time I was there. I'm also awaiting my next trip down to California Adventure, so I can get another serving of its fine Thai curry tofu.
Whatever theme parks have done to improve their food, though, they could do more. So here is today's "What Would You Do?" - what would you do to help make theme park food better for visitors?
Theme parks aren't going to solve America's obesity problem by themselves. Heck, even if every park served the tastiest, freshest, most inexpensive organic delights imaginable, that likely wouldn't knock even one ounce off Americans' collective average weight. Nor should a day at a theme park taste like a day at a New Age macrobiotic seaweed spa. Visiting a theme park should be an immersive sensory experience, engaging sight, sound, touch - and smell and taste. Serving healthy food at a theme park should not deny visitors a complete sensory experience with tasteless or unsatisfying things to eat.
That's why this is a challenge: How can theme parks be better citizens by promoting more healthful eating, while at the same time delivering an indulgent sensory experience? And, oh yeah, let's try to keep the price reasonable, so that people can afford to enjoy their day at the park, too.
By the way, the price issue is why I think the whole "well, people can make a choice" counter-argument is rubbish. Unhealthy processed food typically is priced *much* cheaper (by costing less and taking less time to prepare) than healthier options. And it's promoted heavily through advertising, sponsorships and product placement deal where soda bottlers and fast food chains pay theme parks to have their products sold in the parks. Sure, you can choose healthier options, but industry is going to spend billions or dollars to influence you not to.
Ultimately, though, you can't force people to eat something when they've been conditioned to want something else. If theme parks are to serve better food, they need to unleash some kitchen wizardry to blend taste, nutrition and value to make it alluring in the face of all that corporate support for fatty fast food.
Theme parks will need some "culinary Imagineers."
What would you like to see them do, then?
Personally, I'd like to see even more effort to add a variety of nutritious and lower-calorie options at every theme park restaurant and more of their food stands. Don't just throw a salad on the menu or a few overpriced apples on the food cart. How could parks get creative in making better food tastier and more indulgent? Let's explore ethic cuisine for inspiration, and make dining as much an attraction in the park as the shows and the rides, and not just during special events.
To me, Steve Jayson is every bit as important to Universal Orlando as Mark Woodbury, and I'd love if that were the case for more theme park fans, too. With well-promoted new dishes that happened to be healthy, perhaps more visitors might be tempted to step away from the heaps of beef and cheese to explore something different. And maybe that theme park culinary experimentation might lead to different menu choices at home.
I'd also like to see parks stop "dumbing down" otherwise healthy dishes to appeal to fat-sated appetites. Do we really need to put fried tofu in a bowl of miso soup?
Dumping trans fats was a good first step for theme parks. Now limit portion sizes so that no menu item exceeds one-third of the calories than an average (5' 9") non-overweight man should eat in a one day. (That means no single menu item should exceed about 830 calories.)
Finally, if consumers really are going to be the ones responsible for making healthy choices, shouldn't they be given the information they need to make an informed choice? Put the calorie counts next to the price on all theme park menus. Then let costumers decide. (That should be the case for all high-volume dining establishments, IMHO.)
What would you like to see from a theme park culinary wizard? What's your wish list for great theme park food? Let's hear your ideas, in the comments.
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