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Getting diners on board with better-for-you menu items

Though consumers are interested in improving their food choices, they can be easily scared away by dishes that sound too healthy.

For instance, according to Technomic’s Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report, 30% of diners ages 18-34 said they would choose an indulgent menu item over a healthier one because they thought the indulgent item would taste better.

To diners, good tasting and good for you don’t usually go together. With that in mind, today’s chefs are meeting that challenge by marketing delicious, flavorful, indulgent dishes that also happen to be healthy.

“Guests are looking for a flavorful and delicious meal,”  says chef Bill Billenstein, senior director of culinary and nutrition strategy for Guckenheimer. “We excite the senses with appearance, aroma and flavor, not with messaging or marketing about what the dish does not have. Once guests are satisfied on appearance, aroma and flavor, we’ve gained their trust and can explain that a dish is healthy and mostly plants.”

Encourage exploration

Sensory appeal is particularly important in K-12, operators say.

“Make fresh foods look fantastic so that kids standing in the line can get excited about items like fresh fruit and vegetable garnishes,” suggests chef Lisa M. Feldman, director of recipe management for Sodexo North America. “Go for visual appeal. Young kids who are not fluent readers judge the way a food looks, while high schoolers react to dishes that are suitable for photographing and sharing on social media.” She adds that cooking fragrant ingredients such as bacon, garlic or peppers near the serving area draws children in with delicious smells.

Children are notoriously reluctant to try new foods. Researchers have found that a child may need to be introduced to a food at least 10 times before feeling comfortable enough to try it. That’s why repeat sampling opportunities are critical, particularly for healthy foods that kids may think are “yucky,” such as beans and whole grains. Here, social pressure works particularly well: Kids who have a friend who has tasted and liked a new dish may be more inclined to try it because children want to fit in with their peers, Feldman says.

“Kids also are less intimidated by vegetables that look great and are cut up,” Feldman says. “They flock to salad and topping bars because they love to control what goes on top of their salad or sandwich. These are more popular than a side of cooked vegetables.”

Give them a choice

Guests are more likely to explore new foods when they’re given the opportunity to customize or be more flexible with their preference.

“Our partially plated meals are extremely popular because they allow guests to top a healthful and delicious meal with a variety of additional items: broth, animal protein as a condiment, pickled vegetables and often a couple of new items that they haven’t tried before,” says Billenstein.

Several years ago, the Mushroom Council partnered with the Culinary Institute of America to increase mushroom consumption in a healthful way. The result was The Blend, a combination of ground meat and chopped mushrooms that can substitute for 100% ground meat in many types of dishes. The Blend has been wildly successful because “mushrooms amplify the taste of meat and add a level of juiciness,” explains Steve Solomon, foodservice director for the Mushroom Council. “Flavor is a main benefit of The Blend, but operators may also market health and sustainability benefits from adding mushrooms and cutting down on meat.”

Billenstein stresses the importance of delivering texture consistent with the experience of eating a full meat product: “A blended burger, meatloaf or meatball should not only taste as delicious as a full animal protein version, but it should also provide the same satisfying sensory experience rather than a dry, crumbly interpretation that falls apart and leaves guests unsatisfied with the experience.”

And it makes logistical sense, too. “Burgers made from The Blend work particularly well in schools because they retain their juiciness even after holding in a warming cabinet,” says Feldman.

But perhaps one of the most surefire tactics? Go global.

“One of the best ways to introduce healthful dining and more produce-driven dishes is to look to international culinary traditions,” Solomon says. “Many of those cultures are already plant-forward, so while you feed an adventurous consumer, you also get credit for more authentic cuisine ... along with more vegetables and fruits.”

Photograph: Shutterstock

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