PORTLAND, Maine — El Mercado salad? $2.34. A cup of white chicken chili? $1.55.
Portland diners could get used to this. For a special lunch on what for many Portlanders will be their first workday of 2012, four city restaurants are pricing their menu items according to their calorie counts.
At a penny per calorie, the Jan. 3 promotion will cut some plate prices by more than half at Sebago Brewing Co., DiMillo’s On The Water, El Rayo Taqueria and Spartan Grill.
The Calories Count Lunch, running from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the participating eateries, is being pitched by city officials as a way for Portland patrons to get a good start on New Year’s diet resolutions — and save a few bucks doing it.
The event also fits into the city’s larger campaign to promote the addition of more nutritional information on local restaurant menus, part of an effort to establish Maine’s largest city as a destination for the health conscious.
In March 2010, Portland was awarded $1.8 million in federal grant money to support initiatives to battle obesity. One program funded through the grant was Smart Meals for ME, which pays for Portland area restaurants to bring in a registered dietitian to analyze food selections, as well as revamp their menus to include calorie counts and other nutritional information.
Currently, 10 local restaurants have signed on for the dietitian-menu overhauls, with El Rayo Taqueria and Spartan Grill the latest to join. Another four eateries are in the queue, according to Bethany Sanborn of the city’s Health and Human Services Department’s Public Health Division.
Sanborn told the Bangor Daily News Wednesday nationwide studies have shown that “more than eight out of 10 Americans” support more nutritional menu labeling, and President Barack Obama’s 2010 federal health care law calls for interstate chain restaurants to eventually add more such information to their menus.
Sanborn said the city, through it’s reception of the wide-ranging Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant, opted to launch a program to give locally owned restaurants a chance to afford the menu changes as well.
“The assistance we got from the city made it easy for us to provide nutritional information to our diners,” said Michael Roylos, owner of Spartan Grill, in a statement. “People want to make informed choices about what they eat and thanks to Smart Meals for ME, they have plenty of items to choose from at the Spartan Grill.”
Sanborn said the city is still compiling sales data to more specifically quantify the impacts of its Smart Meals for ME program, but she said early returns suggest many people prefer to eat at establishments where they can easily track their calories.
“Our hope is that we can help make the healthy choice the easy choice,” she said. “If you want to eat out at one of the many great restaurants Portland is known for, we want to help make all the nutritional information available to you.”
According to a city announcement of the Calories Count Lunch promotion, “studies have found a link between eating out and higher caloric intakes. Nine out of 10 diners underestimate the calorie content of their meal by more than 600 calories, and consuming an extra 600 calories a week can lead to a weight gain of nine pounds a year.”
The city announcement goes on to note that about 58 percent of Cumberland County adults are obese or overweight, and that the state of Maine pays $350 million each year in “direct medical costs associated with obesity.”
So for at least one four-hour lunch period at four participating restaurants, diners will stand less of a risk of guessing wrong on how much they’re consuming.
That El Mercado salad at El Raya Taquerio? It normally costs $6.95, but it’s a 234-calorie plate, and at a penny per calorie, the promotion price will make it easy to remember. The cup of white chicken chili at Sebago Brewing Co. typically goes for $4.79, but it’s only 155 calories, and during the Calories Count Lunch, that means it’s a sub-$2 meal.
Spartan Grill’s felafel gyro drops from $6.75 to $5.18 during the temporary price change, and the whole wheat pasta and meatball plate at DiMillo’s will come down from $9 to $6.75 to match its calorie count.
“El Rayo is committed to providing flavorful and healthy options to our diners and our Calorie Count Lunch is a great way to draw attention to the fact that our diners don’t have to sacrifice taste when they give up calories,” said Cheryl Lewis, El Rayo chef, in a statement. “With most Americans eating a third of their calories out at restaurants, we at El Rayo feel it is our responsibility to procure and prepare local, sustainable food that tastes great and gives diners plenty of healthier, nutritional options.”