Needham residents love their restaurants, with more people eating out or ordering in than ever before. This trend, which increased during the pandemic, spurred the Public Health department and the Board of Health to incorporate food establishments into their overall mission of promoting a healthy lifestyle. In October, they will launch Nutritionally Needham, a monthlong initiative to highlight healthy menu options. 

A similar, one-week version of this program modeled after the nutritional portion of Shape Up Somerville ran in 2021 and met with great response, so the health department decided to extend it this year. Seventeen food establishments have signed on.

“Nutritionally Needham offers plant-forward and healthier options for [restaurants’] regular menu,” said Tara Gurge, assistant director of public health. “They’ll keep the base menu. It’s not going to encompass every little menu option, but a snapshot of items they want us to promote.” 

Participating food establishments opt in to the program and must meet at least one of five specific nutrition criteria in order to participate. They submit their menu items, and once verified, the Public Health department drafts a special menu that highlights the healthy items for each establishment, distributes it to the restaurants and posts it to their websites. 

Credit: Needham Health Department

Gurge said they looked at rising obesity rates, and while Needham offers a lot of health and wellness resources, the board thought this was an important aspect of their health goals for the community. 

Public awareness and education about healthy eating choices is a key component of the Public Health department and the role of their board, said Board of Health Chair Tejal Gandhi. She said involving restaurants in helping to raise awareness about healthy choices is an important step. 

“The longer duration is certainly helpful to bring awareness to more people,” said Gandhi. “It’s a reasonable start to create some behavior change and maybe help people look at things on menus they weren’t looking at.” 

She said she hopes over time this could become a permanent fixture on menus, but this is a way to build momentum to that end. “I hope this is something we can continue to do every year.” 

Any establishment overseen by the Public Health department is invited to participate, and this year the Beth Israel Deaconess Needham Hospital cafeteria, the Center at the Heights and Needham Public Schools cafeterias will all take part in the program. 

Gandhi said she hopes this will reach a wide range of age groups, especially the school age kids who can start to make these healthy choices early. “Getting the younger generation into healthy habits that can last a lifetime is important,” she said. 

“I think for the most part we’re lucky we live in a healthy community,” said Gurge. “I think a lot of people eat out, and it’s proven that healthier options promote being more healthy down the road.” She said this initiative helps give people those alternatives. 

Visit the Nutritionally Needham website for more information about participating establishments.

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