Power to change the way America eats rests in the hands of foodservice operators. Ways to wield that power were outlined last month at the fourth annual Worlds of Healthy Flavors Leadership Retreat, staged at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in Napa, Calif.
Influential nutrition scientists, cooking experts and more than 40 chefs and menu decision-makers shared many terrific, easy-to-do ideas for pumping up the flavor and health quality of menus.
Based on years of dietary and nutrition research results, a string of nutrition scientists recommend diets high in vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes and nuts. Most Americans, they say, would do well to reduce the amount of meat they consume and increase their fish consumption. Overall, a plant-based diet with protein as a minor addition can reduce the risk of many chronic diseases.
Bringing those scientists’ recommendations into kitchens was the job of several chefs and cooking experts who demonstrated dishes from the eastern Mediterranean, India, Mexico and California. Their demos introduced a world of ways to use vegetables, fruits, grains and polyunsaturated oils in dishes that are stuffed with whole ingredients and big flavors.
Avoiding the stigma: Unfortunately, early “healthy” menu items tended to lack flavor, making customers leery of anything labeled “heart-healthy” or “low-sodium.” That sort of label guarantees an item won’t sell. Instead of announcing changes, make improvements without fanfare and in ways that customers will enjoy.
Here are some “sneaky” ideas presenters at Worlds of Healthy Flavors recommended noncommercial foodservice operators and chefs use to seduce customers with new healthier choices:
—Spec baked goods—including pizza dough, rolls and muffins— with 20% whole grain. Customers will benefit but most won’t notice the added whole grains.
—Use legume-enriched pasta at pasta bars and in pasta salads.
—Add finely shredded vegetables to low-fat turkey meatloaf and meatballs; include onion, carrot, bell pepper, zucchini, cabbage and tomato. Use plenty of vegetables and the result will be moist and tasty.
—Make cole slaw or chopped salads with lots of carrot, scallion, parsley, radish, lemon juice and flavored vinegar. You can decrease or even eliminate the mayonnaise and use little or no oil.
—Purée beans to use as a soup thickener and add beans or lentils to vegetable soups.
—Make salads and sides with whole wheat couscous—its texture is very similar to white couscous. Create tasty couscous or bulgur salads by adding chopped fruit, cilantro, mint and lemon juice. On the savory side, add asparagus, cucumber and fresh dill with a mustard-lemon dressing.
—Pile green salad on top of pizza or quiche.
—Replace mayonnaise with hummus as a sandwich spread, and try hummus stirred into tuna and chicken salads.
Reduce and go ‘brown:’ The panel of experts, both scientists and chefs, added other advice for foodservice directors who provide meals for customers of all ages. A major consideration, they emphasized, is to reduce portion sizes. Make sandwiches with no more than three ounces of protein and pile on the veggies; whip up omelets with two eggs or extra whites; limit starch sides to half-cup portions. If you do it gradually, your customers will not notice.
In most cases, white bread, buns, rolls, rice and pasta are the norm and whole grain items are offered as an alternative. Why not make a switch? Put the whole-grain items out there first and offer the white breads as an option.
The chefs at the conference also suggested tasty ways to enrich self-serve salad bars with whole grain salads, such as wheat berry with dates, dried apricots, scallions, cilantro and yogurt dressing; brown rice with apples, raisins, celery, almonds and light curry dressing; and barley and small white beans with chopped roasted vegetables, a sprinkle of crumbled cheese, tossed with garlicky dressing.
When recipes use olives, cheese, canned tuna and other salty ingredients, you can reduce the amount of added salt. Use your health-stealth techniques to build flavor with less salt. Bring out the best flavors in vegetables and fruits by grilling, roasting, toasting or puréeing them to use as ingredients.
Nuts, seeds and peanuts are all excellent sources of good fats. Use them, as well as nut butters and oils, in granolas, breakfast items, salads, sandwiches, sides and snacks. Be sure to always identify the dishes that include nuts or peanuts to alert those who are allergic.
Overall, be bold, the chefs said. Most customers are ready to try new dishes from all over the world. Find new flavors and techniques in the cuisines of other cultures, by reading about or traveling to exotic places to learn about the way they use vegetables, fruits, whole grains, spices, and make healthful beverages and sweets. Then plan changes by making a timeline, starting with the most important changes and those that will be easiest for staff to incorporate.
Get creative and get started. As the experts at Greystone said, the power to make changes is in your hands.