Promoting health

Published in Wellness Watch

Successful wellness meals start with the right marketing.

Urbandale’s chef’s salads.

Call it a wellness meal, wholesome option or even a spa plate. Whatever the name, many non-commercial operators are working to meet the demands of increasingly health-conscious eaters by developing and promoting lower-calorie, higher-nutrient menus.

The trend has become very popular on college campuses. Pennsylvania State University’s wellness program, RHEAL (Residential Healthy Eating And Living), started with an idea from a student nutrition assistant. RHEAL aims to simplify healthful eating. “What we run into often is students calling and saying there’s no healthy food on campus. That was never the case, but people might not know how to pick those options out. This was our response, to highlight those options and make it easier,” says Melissa Hendricks, R.D., Penn State’s ancillary healthcare specialist.

Using USDA guidelines, Penn State’s Culinary Support Services team built wellness meal parameters: To qualify for RHEAL, main dishes must have less than 500 calories and 600 milligrams of sodium per serving, with a maximum of 35% of calories from fat and 10% of calories from saturated fat. Sides must be less than 225 calories, and soups less than 170 calories. Dishes such as Bean Bourguignon, Black Bean and Butternut Squash Stew and Southwestern Turkey Chili all fit the bill and are highlighted with a carrot icon on the entrée card.

Launched less than six months ago, RHEAL is gearing up for a promotion-heavy spring semester. “August was a soft opening. Starting in January, we have a lot more activities planned to promote the program, like Meet the R.D. sessions at our dining facilities,” Hendricks says.

Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Mich., has also sought to expand its healthy options. In the fall of 2013, Creative Dining Services, which manages foodservice at the college, opened the Wellness Station, featuring made-to-order vegetarian and vegan meals. At the crêpe station, students can choose their own fillings or select from veggie-rich menu options, like the Mediterranean Crêpe with Kalamata olives, eggplant, zucchini, carrot, peppers and feta topped with balsamic vinegar. Also available are fresh veggie wraps with tofu or tempeh, plus nutrient-rich sides like Three Bean Salad or French Bean Pilaf.

The Wellness Station has proven to be a hit, in part due to a smart marketing campaign. Dining services promotes the new offerings on Facebook, and bright red menu boards grab students’ attention in the dining hall. Being able to see staff cooking food to order is also a draw, says Director of Dining Services Rick Balfour.

Recent changes to federal meal nutrition guidelines like lower calories and less fat and sodium mean K-12 schools have had to develop healthier options, too. In Iowa’s Urbandale Community School District, students are offered a chef’s salad with the option of turkey, ham or cheese, as well as a yogurt parfait with housemade granola and fresh or frozen fruit. Fresh fruit and vegetable sides, like celery sticks with peanut butter or a cup of cherry tomatoes, are also emphasized. “Our high school kids can have up to two cups of fruits and vegetables, so we try to put everything in half-cups so they can get four per service. If you market it as ‘you can pick four different items,’ kids seem to like that,” says Director of Food Services Cathy Conklin.