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8 health-boosting tips from MenuDirections

MenuDirections speakers share on-trend ways to promote healthy eating.

1. Plan the design to put health front and center

At Stanford University, students immediately hit the salad and vegan selections when they enter the dining hall. These plant-based items are offered on a 28-foot-long “performance bar” right near the entrance. “The performance bar is designed to get students to eat more sustainably and healthier, but we don’t use the vegan label,” said Eric Montell, executive director of Stanford Dining, during the Menus Of Change session. Some call this healthy placement choice architecture. To reinforce the message, greenhouses and gardens also are located at the entrance to the dining hall, right near the performance bar.

healthy breakfast oatmeal fruit

2. Go beyond calories to identify health on the menu

Today’s consumers are not culturally connected to calories, said Maeve Webster of Menu Matters. To engage customers in healthy eating, use a larger font, green ink or icons to identify healthier items on the menu. If not required, calories can then be be listed on the website instead of the menu.

3. Fry in coconut oil

Keynoter Dr. James Painter advocates frying and sauteing foods in coconut oil—it is lowest in trans fats. He suggests using olive and canola oil for other cooking techniques and adding high-fat plant foods, such as avocados, nuts and coconut to the menu. “Fat is not evil,” he said. “What causes heart disease is more about stress than diet.”

4. Follow the 80-20 rule

FoodService Director’s Chefs’ Council member Jennifer Leamons, executive chef at Stanly Regional Medical Center, told attendees that “meat on the side” is her thing. She fills 80 percent of the plate with vegetables and grains and 20 percent with protein. “If you put the right spin on it, this strategy hooks [customers] in,” she said.

5. Spotlight sauces and condiments instead of salt

Sodium consumption is a hot topic on the campus of University of Washington, said Chefs’ Council member Tracey Macrae, campus executive chef of housing & food services. “Students asked for more reduced salt, so we set up a station that serves lower-sodium food with lots of inventive, low-salt condiments to customize dishes,” she said. Google’s cafes also do a customizable sauce bar with a changing roster of scratch-made choices, said Michiel Bakker, director of global food services for Google Food.

6. Celebrate a different superfood each month

At St. Andrews Estates North, a senior-living community, Chef Jose Zuluaga holds cooking demos to show residents how he incorporates nutrition-packed foods on the menu, stealth-health style. March is yogurt month, and Zuluaga is creating dressings and desserts destined for meals.

7. Treat vegetables like meat

Ron DeSantis, director of culinary experience at Yale, has created vegetable charcuterie platters, rutabaga pastrami and a butternut and sage rillettes that stands in for pork. At Stanford, a giant vegetable rotisserie is the focal point of one dining hall. The piece of equipment holds baskets of whole and cut-up seasoned vegetables as they rotate and cook rotisserie-style.

8. Involve your customers

To get buy-in from students, University of Washington launched an initiative called The Whole You. An advisory council of students tells dining services what they would like to see grown on the campus farm, what types of grains and vegetables they’d like on their plates, and more. The initiative has moved the needle on healthy eating, said Tracey Macrae.

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