Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Embedding Healthy Flavors

Healthy offerings need not sacrifice flavor, as with this 320-calorie Mediterranean wrap from Jason’s Deli, featuring an organic wheat wrap filled with oven-roasted turkey breast and a bounty of tasty veggies. Photo courtesy of Jason’s Deli. Five maxims for incorporating better-for-you fare on your menu

By Katie Ayoub

As an industry, we used to talk about “healthful dining” as a segment. We parsed it into silos: heart healthy, low sodium, low calorie. We accentuated what we had taken out of the meal to meet diners’ restrictions so they knew that we had delivered on their sacrificial, often bland diets. But now we look at healthful dining in terms of “better for you.” Operators that are finding success here are touting the positives rather than labeling the negatives. They’re putting flavor first — because one thing we’ve learned collectively over the years is that if it doesn’t taste good, they won’t order it.

“The kiss of death was marking dishes as ‘low sodium’ or ‘heart healthy’,” says Christopher Koetke, vice president of Laureate International Universities’ Center of Excellence in Culinary Arts and the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts. “Chefs cooked to get those labels on their menus, so they poached chicken, they steamed vegetables. But cooking to the numbers instead of one’s palate doesn’t work. The challenge is to create a dish that hits the numbers without sacrificing flavor.” To succeed, then, is to look at ingredients and techniques that are inherently healthful and that deliver big flavor instead of trying to twist something unhealthy into something wholesome. “Better for you” becomes a strategy rather than a category.

One of the biggest motivators for foodservice to get this right is to address impending mandatory menu-labeling rules with appealing better-for-you choices. But casting aside that mandate for a minute, another huge motivator is the consumer. According to recent data from the National Restaurant Association (NRA), 71 percent of adults say they’re trying to eat healthier than they were two years ago. “Consumers want it and restaurants are responding to it,” says Joy Dubost, NRA director of nutrition. “But the big factor for a winning strategy is how you position it. Each brand has to look at it differently.” Indeed, better for you isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Casual dining might do well with a lower-calorie menu. Polished casual might find success in a small-plates or smaller-portions strategy. Whatever the strategy, putting flavor first seems to be the silver bullet.

1. The Power of Positives
Doesn’t “citrus-laced” sound better than “reduced salt”? Chef Robert Danhi recently led a group of chefs through a citrus tasting. “Citrus adds a perception of fresh,” he says. “Calling something ‘citrus-infused’ rather than ‘low sodium’ will help your customers feel like they’re not missing out on taste.” The group learned about Sunkist’s S’alternatives initiative, which offers chefs tips and recipes using the “distractionary flavors” of citrus in place of added salt.

James Painter, professor at the Eastern Illinois University School of Family and Consumer Sciences, in Charleston, Ill., has conducted research on “seductive nutrition.” His findings are telling. “We changed the menu name from ‘fish’ to ‘succulent Italian seafood filet’ and people liked it better and were willing to pay more for it,” he says. Orders doubled. He echoes what Koetke says: “Don’t call out low fat or low salt,” says Painter. “Use words like ‘wholesome’ and focus on the flavor.”

Denny’s is finding success with accentuating the positives in dishes like Cranberry Apple Chicken Salad, which touts grilled seasoned chicken breast, glazed pecans, apple slices and dried cranberries on a bed of spring lettuce mix with balsamic vinaigrette. Flavor cues like “grilled” and “glazed” reinforce positives. Under the umbrella of its well-received SkinnyLicious menu, The Cheesecake Factory serves up hits like Roasted Pear and Blue Cheese Flatbread, which sports pecans, arugula and caramelized onions, and Santorini Salad with farro, cucumbers, tomatoes, beets red onion and tzatziki. Those have a much better ring than Veggie Plate or Dieter’s Delight. And nothing about those flavor combinations indicates painful sacrifice for the diner. They can feel good about their dining choices — and still enjoy their meal.

And that’s where better for you is perhaps morphing into “feel-good food.” Even if better-for-you fare isn’t in your crosshairs, perhaps you can still reach health-seeking customers by developing recipes that are inherently healthier. Maybe the fat content and calorie content are a touch over the ideal, but the fats are from olive oil and the calories are from baked sweet potato fries. Your wholesome tweaks give your customers choices they can still feel good about.

Increase menu options for diners with choices like this creamy chicken soup made with a gluten-free soup base. Photo courtesy of Nestle Professional / Minor’s.

2. Sodium down, flavor up
As a society, we’re pretty well versed as to the dangers of too much sodium. But as foodservice professionals, we also know that salt makes food taste good. “You get a full sensory experience with salt,” says the NRA’s Dubost. “You can only take it down so far without the loss being noticed by the consumer.” But you can take it down. A study from the Harvard School of Public Health and The Culinary Institute of America found that the average person can’t detect “moderate to substantial differences in sodium levels, including reductions of up to as much as

25 percent.” Dubost suggests these strategies for reducing sodium without sacrificing that flavor boost: Rinse canned goods, like tomatoes and beans; be mindful of how much salt you’re adding; and look for other ways to build the taste back in.

“Spices and herbs really are great flavor enhancers,” she says. “And work with your suppliers. Let them know you’re looking for lower-sodium products.”

The notion of building flavor back in to compensate for the reduction in salt links back to both stressing a positive over a negative and seductive nutrition. Take citrus, for instance. With its bright, sour, acidic flavor, citrus is a good sodium replacement. And within the world of citrus, different flavor notes play out. For instance, lemons bring a floral aroma and clean, vigorous flavor, while Meyer lemons offer a vivid orange-blossom aroma and sweeter, less acidic taste.

“Flavor is a sensual experience that is created with all five senses. Choosing ingredients carefully, using visual cues of flavor, and considering the tactile dimension of your next recipe can help chefs avoid excessive sodium and still have a satisfying sensory experience,” says Danhi.

Other flavor builders include chile peppers, fresh herbs, garlic, ginger, vinegars, wine and spices like cinnamon, turmeric and black pepper.

3. Downsized portions
Datassential findings show that 67 percent of diners look for small plates “sometimes” or “more often.” Are they motivated by cultural shifts or dietary mandate? Either way, they’re seeking them out. Both small plates and smaller portions offer a good better-for-you solution. Indeed, many multi-units are implementing a low-calorie strategy, adding sections of their menus that cluster dishes under a calorie ceiling.

Technomic reports that the term “low calorie” on menus has increased significantly over the past three years. Einstein Bros. Bagels brings in the healthful-minded diner with a “Smart Choices” menu of items under 350 calories. Darden’s Seasons 52 charts a steady growth path with all of its offerings coming in at 475 calories or under. The Corner Bakery Cafe offers a menu of dishes less than 600 calories, meeting that promise through smaller portions. Top sellers include half of a Chicken Pomodoro Panini with roasted chicken, basil, spinach, oven-roasted tomatoes, provolone and pesto mayonnaise, served with a roasted tomato basil soup.

“The ray of hope here is smaller portions,” says Koetke. “In fact, the whole way you approach an entrée can be different. We’re moving away from a chunk of meat with a few sides. There’s a difference now in how we’re teaching culinary students about plate composition, and those plates of food are smaller.”

Smaller and perhaps more refined, with mindful attention to protein portions and better-for-you snack and side options, all with a dedicated focus on flavor: steamed broccoli giving way to charred Brussels sprouts, finished with a citrus squeeze instead of a pat of butter, for example.

“Casual dining has started to put a limit on calories in a meal,” says the NRA’s Dubost. “It’s hot and sexy now, and even targeted to men. We’re seeing this emerge into a sustainable trend.”

Citrus adds enough flavor punch to divert attention from reduced salt, such as in this palate-pleasing lemon paella dish. Photo courtesy of Sunkist.
4. More produce, please
This one’s easy. But it’s not just about increasing the volume of produce — it’s about coaxing out maximum flavor and making it craveable. Boiled carrots won’t cut it. Nor will a vegetable plate. But how about a Fit Fare Veggie Skillet? This one is Denny’s, and it features red-skinned potatoes, roasted peppers and onions, mushrooms and broccoli, all served on a hot skillet with two egg whites scrambled with grape tomatoes and spinach. “If you start with really great ingredients, you don’t have to throw a lot of butter and salt on it,” says Koetke. He uses asparagus as an example, suggesting that you can amplify the wonderful flavor of asparagus while making it stand out. Broil it, add a little cheese over top, then melt that cheese. “Simple. It needs so little. I had this recently and thought it was culinary genius,” he says. “We’re at the intersection between flavor and health. We have to ask the really hard question: ‘Is this really good?’”

Local and produce walk in hand in hand, naturally. Datassential found that 69 percent of diners are likely to order an item featuring locally sourced produce. And 64 percent are likely to order items only featuring produce in season. Freshness cues such as “field greens” and “market vegetables” resonate. Flavor cues such as “wood-grilled” and “slow-roasted” also make a connection. Making the link between produce and local for your customers is a better-for-you strategy that requires little menu innovation. Increase the amount of fresh produce, and not only are your feet firmly planted on the better-for-you path, but your customers can walk that path with you.

5. whole-grain superpower
While produce is perhaps the easiest entry into better-for-you menu innovation, whole grains might be more challenging. But packed with good stuff and carrying a brightly glowing health halo, whole grains are worth exploring. Who are the menu darlings? Having claimed a stake on fine-dining menus, quinoa is making inroads into other foodservice segments. At First Watch, the Quinoa Power Bowl features white quinoa, kale, carrots, house-roasted tomatoes, grilled all-natural chicken, basil pesto, feta and fresh herbs. Mildly nutty and christened the “mother of all grains” by the Incas, this whole grain packs a nutritional wallop without demanding too much of the palate. “Though plain brown rice is the low-cost and safe variety driving whole-grain growth in chains, diners are demanding more,” says Michael Holleman, chair of the Boston-based Whole Grains Council’s board of advisors. “Quinoa is now practically as well-known, and pronounceable, as chipotle peppers have become.”

And just as the NRA’s Kids LiveWell program has perhaps coaxed healthy innovation in the adult menu, new legislation requiring whole grains in kindergarten through 12th grade is opening up the world of whole grains for families dining out. “Acceptance of whole grains by the American palate is not happening overnight, though it is becoming more of the norm. The work the Whole Grains Council is doing with the whole-grains stamp is groundbreaking, as is requiring whole grains on K to 12 menus,” says Holleman. “Those are just two examples of why the acceptance of whole grains is moving at a rapid rate. We won’t be having these discussions five years from now, as they will be the new norm.” So the challenge is for chefs to make them delicious. Whole-grain blends might be the gateway grain for some multi-units. Quinoa has laid the groundwork for other “exotics,” like farro and wheat berries. “We’re seeing tremendous movement with whole grains,” says NRA’s Dubost. “There’s opportunity here to attract that consumer who is now serving whole-wheat pasta at home and knows the health benefits of whole grains.”

Better for you can be a rigid interpretation of nutritionals or it can be a holistic approach to menu development. Koetke offers an analogy for how we should incorporate healthful principles and emphasize their importance: “We don’t just teach sanitation to incoming culinary students and then not mention it again until graduation,” he says. “It’s part of every class, every cooking experience. Better-for-you cookery should follow the same principles. It needs to be pervasive. Mindfulness is a healthy way of looking at it.”

About The Author


Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.