I’m pleased to present the June installment of  Spark’s! interview series: “5 questions with…”, which introduces you to amazing people in the health & wellness field who are doing incredible work to make our world a healthier, happier, more enjoyable place to live.

This month, we talk to Jared Koch, the creator of CleanPlates NYC, a guide to healthy restaurants in New York City.  Jared graduated a year ahead of me from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and since then has embarked on an incredible journey to empower people to make informed choices about their food. The first time I picked up a copy of Clean Plates, I was impressed by the quality of the writing (a special shout out to food critic Alex Van Buren, who wrote the reviews), the incredible amount of information included, and–most of all–the fact that every single restaurant included has to be both healthy AND delicious.  (Because we’ve all been to healthy restaurants where the food tastes like alfalfa-sprout covered cardboard).

So, without further ado, I present 5 questions with Jared Koch:

I love the concept of Clean Plates: healthy restaurants that serve tasty food. How did you come up with the idea?

I work with individuals as a nutritional consultant and was looking for a way to reach a larger audience. I am very passionate about contributing to empowering larger numbers of people to improve the way they eat, so I started observing closely what was holding my clients back and what was getting them to change. Simply put, in order to convince people to eat healthier, it had to be easy and it had to still be pleasurable. While educating and supporting people is important, it was really the practical resources – in the form of restaurant and product recommendations – that would convince them to actually change. They would go to a new restaurant and/or try a new product and literally be putting something different in their body. They would come back for our next session and say, “Wow, I loved that restaurant, I’m going to start going there a few days a week.” So I started to see people making real change and was excited about it, so that’s when the idea for Clean Plates started to form.

When I started looking into what else existed in the form of restaurant guides for people wanting to eat better quality foods, I realized nothing quite existed the way I would have wanted it to. There are plenty of vegan and vegetarian guides, but their underlying philosophy is that if it is vegetarian, then it is healthy. I don’t believe that to be true and wanted to make people aware of the many potential pitfalls of just blindly eating vegetarian or vegan and to point them towards the restaurants that were truly doing a great job serving healthier vegetarian food. And for those who eat animal foods but want to make sure the animals are raised healthier and more humanely, there was no easy way to find out which restaurants were sourcing animals raised on grass, free of hormones and antibiotics etc.

Last but definitely not least, one of the main pillars of the Clean Plates mission is to dispel the myth that eating healthier is a tasteless, boring sacrifice. I teamed up with Alex Van Buren, an experienced food critic, so we would have to agree on all of our featured selections both from a nutrition and taste perspective. Ultimately, if someone goes to a restaurant that we are suggesting we want them to have an incredible experience. We want them to truly enjoy the food they are eating and have no guilt about eating it because they know it is good for them.

What was the biggest challenge in reviewing and choosing the restaurants you included?

We researched about 300 restaurants and ate at about 125 of them. The most challenging part was to gather the information and eat at all of them in a time frame that was reasonably quick so we could publish Clean Plates. Since there was no easy way to know which restaurants were sourcing their animal products well and which ones were truly using local and/or organic produce, we had to do a lot of research and fact checking. Other than that, I have to admit it was an incredibly fun and enjoyable experience. Not the worst or hardest job in the world to eat at so many amazing restaurants!

What advice do you have for our readers in terms of navigating a menu at a restaurant? How can they tell what’s healthy, fresh, and local?

Ultimately we hope that is what Clean Plates provides for people. I don’t think people should be afraid to ask at a restaurant if they are concerned about something in particular – like if the meat is free of hormones and antibiotics or from a local farm – but I know a lot of people are uncomfortable with it. We figured that if we did the research, people could just relax and enjoy the experience since they know that the restaurant is doing a serving real, whole, and good food. Our online database offers a way to search for restaurants based on many different preferences. So whether you are looking for a place that is vegan, serving grass-fed beef or gluten-free options, you can easily find one.

What’s your favorite healthy restaurant in the City right now? What’s your favorite dish there?

That is the toughest question I get. I like so many of them and don’t really have a favorite place. I really like variety and experiencing the different places, chefs and their creations. A few notable places I have eaten at recently: Northern Spy for local, sustainable food in the East Village is great, as is Counter for vegetarian food. Community Food and Juice and Peacefood Café (both on the Upper West Side) are also fantastic.

What’s next for you?

I really feel like I am just getting started with Clean Plates and see it as a much broader concept/brand with a lot of great potential to empower people to eat healthier and more sustainably. I am presently working with a team of very smart people on finishing up a business plan that I am very excited about.