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A pre-dinner punch: 'Pre-petizers' pack quite the caloric wallop

FARGO -- Whenever Sheila Finneseth eats at Texas Roadhouse in Fargo, she cannot resist "roll call."

That's the Roadhouse's trademark dinner roll, which is served with its own cinnamon butter before the meal. The Fargo woman said she's found herself eating four of them in one sitting.

"They kind of remind me of the buns coming out of the oven when I was a kid and mom baked," said Finneseth, a pharmaceutical representative and married mother of three. "They're always warm and delicious."

Indeed, not many restaurant patrons can ignore the lure of "free food" -- the fresh bread, chips, buttery popcorn and salted peanuts we're invited to nibble on while waiting for our real meal to arrive.

The problem is that these foods show up, like manna from heaven, when our willpower is at its lowest.

"Usually by the time we get to a restaurant we're pretty hungry, so anything presented to us right away, we're tempted to take," said Julie Garden-Robinson, an associate professor and Extension food and nutrition specialist at North Dakota State University.

But even if these irresistible munchies are free, the calories aren't.

Red Lobster's "cheddar bay biscuits" are a favorite, melt-in-your-mouth freebie, but it takes willpower of steel to eat just one. Consume three in one sitting and you'll ingest the caloric equivalent to a McDonald's Quarter Pounder -- and that's before the main course.

And the total calories for Finneseth's splurge on four, butter-slathered dinner rolls? That's 1,408 calories -- slightly more than a half-order of cheese fries with ranch dressing.

It doesn't help that some of these freebies are "all-you-can-eat." The bottomless bread bowl will just pad our own bottoms.

"We know from research studies, it's mindless eating. If it's there, you'll just keep eating it," Garden-Robinson said. "And the larger the portion, the more people will eat."

Still, some of the same restaurants doling out high-carb freebies are reassessing their approaches.

In the last year the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain began serving up petite, garlic-cheese biscuits as a free "pre-petizer."

The stats for these petite breads aren't bad. One biscuit has 110 calories and 5 grams of fat, although the restaurant chain doesn't share saturated fat contents on its nutrition breakdowns.

Peter Glander, executive chef for the chain, said the company added the free bread to its menu based on customer requests.

"Bread is a part of the meal, it's part of the experience," Glander said. "What's more reminiscent than going into someone's house and there's fresh bread? We wanted to evoke that feeling."

Although chain restaurants don't have a reputation for serving low-fat, diet-friendly foods, the executive chef insists that much thought went into the nutritional profile of the

biscuits.

"When we developed the bread itself, we wanted to make sure the flour was good, there was not too much added fat and that it didn't contain things that weren't healthy or didn't make you feel good," Glander says. "It's absolutely as clean as

possible."

He said this approach is in line with several sweeping changes the chain has instituted to make its menu healthier. Earlier, it removed all high-fructose corn syrup from its fare and it's working to reduce sodium levels in its sauces. Due to increased reports of gluten intolerance, Glander's team is also working on a gluten-free alternative to the garlic-cheddar biscuits.

The challenge is to balance what Americans have been conditioned to love -- highly salted, high-carb, high-fat foods -- with what is good for us, Glander said.

He said Ruby Tuesday has adopted a changing food culture that emphasizes a "dining experience" over a "feeding experience."

Those who crave a "feeding experience" want huge portions and indifferent food at a low price.

"If you come to dine, there's service, there's ambience, there's emotion," Glander said. "I expect it to be healthy and good and for someone to take care of me. I want to go to a movie when I'm done and I expect not to go into a coma."

But on an individual level, the most we can do is pay attention to what and how much we're eating -- even if the food is highly palatable and free.

"The idea is to take the edge off your appetite," Garden-Robinson said. "We don't need to eat a meal before the real meal."

Swift is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by

Forum Communications Co.

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