Healthy Meets Delicious
westbrooks_1Flavor need not be sacrificed in better-for-you options like this bruschetta with a topping of roasted tomatoes, carrots and broccoli tossed in a healthy Omega-9 oil dressing. Photo courtesy of omega-9 oils.
Healthful dining is no longer a trend only for “health nuts” but a paradigm shift in the restaurant industry, following the buying habits of the American consumer and the rulemaking by the FDA on menu labels.

Consider that sales of organic foods grew from just $1 billion in 1990 to more than $28 billion in 2012, according to the Organic Trade Association. The rise of retailers like Whole Foods and The Fresh Market are mirrored in the foodservice industry by the growth of chains like Chipotle, Seasons 52, Sweet Green and Lyfe Kitchen—concepts that tout healthier menus as a better lifestyle.

A recent study by NPD Group found that consumers are making a conscious effort to live a healthier lifestyle and are looking for products made with less fat, sodium and sweeteners. However, these attitudes have little influence on a diner’s choice of restaurant and menu item, with only a small percentage of consumers seeking nutritional information such as calories (20 percent) and fats/oils (13 percent).

“As chefs, we have a responsibility to strive for the highest of culinary standards and perpetually advance and evolve with changing times,” says Rob Corliss, chef-consultant with ATE (All Things Epicurean), a culinary consultancy based in Nixa, Mo. “I encourage all chefs to be proactive in their menu development versus reactive to industry or legislative mandates.”

When the FDA’s menu labeling and other mandated nutrition programs hit the scene, the industry originally looked at them with a “less is more” attitude—less calories, less fat, less salt, less sugar. But those who embraced the change and cut the bleeding edge of the healthful dining movement are now following a “sometimes more is just more” philosophy, building flavor versus subtracting it. They have found no small amount of success, while also earning the trust of their customers.

Conscious Menu Planning
“Many of the chains give up too easily,” says Corliss. “They could be optimizing existing products versus reinventing the wheel, but get stuck in ‘paralysis by over-analysis,’ when they really need to start small and let the program grow.”

Corliss points at Wendy’s as a good example of program-building, with its “Quality is our Recipe” approach, touting fresh ingredients, better flavor and fewer calories. Its website is chock full of nutrition information and tips on making smarter eating choices. Wendy’s is also a member of the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell healthy dining initiative.

“The key is to lead with flavor and ingredients, and have the nutrition information available online or in an app to back it up,” Corliss says.

It’s a strategy that’s working outside the fast-casual segment as well. “We worked with a lot of nutritionists in the beginning,” says Cliff Pleau, senior director of culinary and beverage, of the menu strategy at Darden’s upscale Seasons 52 concept. “But you can’t have that as a hurdle to your creativity. Our mantra was ‘seasonal, and, by the way, it’s good for you,’ and 10 years later, that’s still where we are.”

Seasons 52 has since paved the way for other healthy concepts, and according to Pleau, that was the intent.

“We were way out on the edge when we came in, and others have skated into the healthful dining space behind us. We started from scratch with our whole concept,” Pleau explains. “We started the healthy plate approach by asking, ‘What needs to be on the plate and how do we build it?’ versus creating the Ultimate Cobb Salad and taking away from it. We looked at every part of the dish and built up. Did we need lettuce? Could it be organic? Then, we chose a real premium chicken product: farm-fresh, whole, roasted all-natural chicken.” 1 | 2 | 3   Next »
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