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Catering to a healthier crowd

At buffets and plated affairs, lighter meals are becoming more popular.

If you had to predict where to find the world’s most delicious healthy fish entrée, a catered hospital dinner might not be your first guess. But that’s exactly the feedback that Reading Health System Executive Chef David Robison received when he served his Orange Spice Juniper Ahi Tuna at a medical staff dinner. “One doctor said that he’d eaten all over the world and never had anything like this and absolutely loved it,” Robison says.

salmon cracker appetizers

After considering the rest of Robison’s good-for-you catering offerings, the doctor’s praise might not seem so surprising. To support Reading’s healthier food initiatives, Robison regularly serves up dishes such as lime-glazed salmon, grilled asparagus with citrus vinaigrette, roast pork with ginger-pear chutney and flank steak with chimichurri. Emphasizing the importance of farm-to-table, a sizable portion of Robison’s fruits and vegetables come from local growers. Many herbs are plucked straight from the hospital’s volunteer-maintained garden.

Fresh produce and lean proteins also form the backbone of healthy catered dishes at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where Director of Dining Services Errol Huffman oversees up to 10 events each day. Grilled chicken breast on a bed of local greens is a favorite, as is grilled salmon. To punch up the lean proteins without adding much fat, Huffman’s team relies on bold flavorings such as maple reductions or fruit compotes.

Whole grain sides are big, too. “Quinoa is a huge alternative to starchier items,” Huffman says. “For a plated affair, we’ll have it dressed with roasted vegetables for a vegan option. We’ll also serve it as a bed for whatever protein is on the menu.”

Healthy still a challenge

Of course, nudging customers toward nutritious choices at buffets or plated events isn’t always easy, notes Damian Monticello, corporate hospitality services manager at Florida Blue in Jacksonville, Fla.

“Typically, it’s about how the item is presented. Menu items have to be described in a way that’s appealing,” says Monticello. Rather than tout an item as “low-calorie” or “low-fat,” Monticello’s team focuses on describing dishes in positive ways, with words like “fresh,” “seasonal,” or “herb-infused.” Descriptive names such as Pecan Crunch Wheat Berry French Toast or Basil Lemon Chicken Breast and Couscous also attract diners.

And although you might think having a dedicated healthy concept or station at buffets would help lighter options stand out and gain more traction, that isn’t always the case. When Reading Hospital’s Robison sets up a separate line for lighter vegetarian or vegan dishes such as grilled portobello mushrooms with sautéed kale and sundried tomato pesto on ciabatta rolls, only 10% to 15% of customers eat it. “But when I put them in the same line [as everything else], it’s about 98%,” he says.

At Eastern Carolina University, in Greenville, N.C., balance is key when planning a healthy catering menu. The Tuscan Table, a buffet-style spread of grilled vegetables dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, is a healthy mainstay at ECU’s catered events. Wild rice or sweet potatoes instead of mashed white potatoes or grilled vegetable timbales with goat cheese are popular, too.

“But we have to keep in mind of where we’re at. In North Carolina, we’re used to fried chicken and barbecue,” says Wesley Dills, nutrition director for Aramark at ECU. “We’ll always have variety, so customers can have their staple items as well as the opportunity to enjoy something different.”

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