Can you put a healthful item on the menu that people will actually choose to order? How can you reduce calories and add nutrients? How can you cook with less fat and get more flavor?
These are questions that many — if not most — operators face all the time now, when money is tight and waistlines are expanding.
Paulette Lambert, RD, CDE, director of nutrition at the California Health & Longevity Institute, has been teaching schools, corporations and hospital foodservice operations how to answer such questions for more than 28 years.
Doing so now more important than ever, with the growing cost of health care looming large for most Americans. Childhood obesity and diabetes are becoming everyone's problem. And while small changes on a menu may not seem like much, those changes can add up, Lambert says.
“I think the proactive stance of ‘let's do what we can with what we have to improve’ definitely needs to be put into play,” says Lambert, who was working in hospitals for years before joining the Institute, and also ran her own private practice, implementing wellness programs for corporations and healthy lunch programs for schools.
Most recently, Lambert worked with a school district in California, where she saw lots of students getting high-fat muffins and zero-nutrient sports drinks for lunch. Looking deeper, she noticed a lot of thawing and heating, limited full kitchens in each school and a lot of processed commodity foods high in sodium.
“From an idealistic point of view, it is not perfect,” Lambert says. “But we looked at commodity lists and vendor lists and asked ‘How can we improve the overall taste and healthfulness?’”
Creating healthier menus, even little by little, can make a difference, not just in K-12.
FM interviewed Lambert for some advice on how our readers might add more healthful options to menus that can stand toe-to-toe with their not-so-healthy competitors.
“High sodium levels, for most people, are related to hypertension. But too much sodium is a problem even for children, because it leads to wear and tear on the arterial system for the long term. Plus, people develop a taste for salt. The good news is, the less salt you consume, the less you will need.
“To keep the flavor while cutting back on sodium, use more fresh herbs and spices. Think about the Mediterranean diet, with its use of basil, mint and garlic. Use reduced-sodium chicken broth and stock for sauces instead of the powder or the cubes. Instead of 1,100 mg of sodium per cup, you can get down to 600 or 700 milligrams. Use sea salt in pinches, not handfuls!
“Grilled seafood is a healthful menu item that can be marketed by its flavor profile alone. People who eat fish two to three times a week have less cardiovascular disease. As long as it's not deep fried!
The word ‘grilled’ is a good signifier of ‘healthy’ on the menu that doesn't scream ‘diet plate.’
“Offer a side of two vegetables in place of one starch. I was at a very chichi Italian restaurant that is known for its turkey meatballs. You have the option of having them on top of pasta OR vegetables. I think that's great.
“Offer sauces and dressings on the side. And don't sauce everything so heavily. When you put sauce on something, a chicken breast for example, do you really need that much? Do you need four tablespoons of a rich sauce? Could three work? These small changes don't have to be extreme but they do make a difference.
“In the same vein, use a little less sour cream on a burrito.
“Limit the amount of fat used in cooking. In our wellness kitchen at the Institute, we pan-sear four salmon filets using one tablespoon of olive oil. We brown the salmon on a really hot pan to get that wonderful crispy outside, and then finish it in the oven.
“Processed taco meat is very salty, so the solution is to add black beans, cilantro, frozen corn and canned tomatoes. We then added some chili powder and made a chili out of it.
“Putting a menu on two-week cycles is better than having a month-long cycle. That way, you can be more sensitive to seasonality.
“Don't put out too many items on the salad bar. It can save labor costs and it's less wasteful. At the K-12 level, you don't need 3 dried fruits at a time, and you don't need 5 dressings. That many choices can be overwhelming to kids, plus there is more variety when you see something different every day rather than all at once.
“Add baby spinach to salad mixes. It adds antioxidants, Vitamin K and folic acid. Instead of using iceberg, use romaine. It still tastes mild, but has a much higher nutritional value than iceberg.
“Dilute creamy salad dressing with ⅓ buttermilk and ⅔ dressing. It tastes even better, has a lower fat content and is also a cost-saving measure. That saved money could go to more fresh produce.
“Use frozen fruit and yogurt for smoothies, not juice. People love smoothies and they are getting protein and calcium from the yogurt and vitamin D, antioxidants and fiber from the fruit. The fruit's fiber slows down the absorption of the natural sugar, unlike juice.
“Instead of cinnamon rolls with 18 grams of fat, cookies and high-calorie processed snacks for breakfast, we developed a breakfast snack cake that is lower in calories (see recipe above). That's our answer to the 400-calorie cinnamon roll.
“Keeping labor costs in mind is an important part of planning a healthier menu. Find a prep chef who just comes into the kitchen in the morning to chop vegetables, prep the salad bars, even make a fresh marinara sauce. The cooks usually don't have time to do all that at lunchtime.
“To sum up my philosophy for healthier menus, I would say: Use more fresh fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and less fat and salt.”