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Healthful food must pass the taste test

Sysco Shape March 2014

This year's National Nutrition Month® acknowledges a fact that most chefs and restaurateurs already have learned - that taste is the most critical element in an individual's decision of what to eat.

The theme of this year's event, “Enjoy the Taste of Eating Right,” underscores that while social, emotional and health factors all play a role in the decision-making process, we are most likely to choose the foods we think taste the best.

As a result, experts say, restaurants must find a way to provide guests with menu items that are flavorful as well as nutritious.

“When taste is the most influential factor driving what consumers eat, it is important that we find the balance between choosing the foods we like with those that provide the nutrients we need,” says Dr. Glenna McCollum, president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which is sponsoring the event for the 31st year. “This year's 'Enjoy the Taste of Eating Right' theme reinforces that the two choices are not mutually exclusive.”

The desire to balance nutrition and taste is, in fact, top of mind for many members of the restaurant community. The National Restaurant Association's 2014 Culinary Forecast - which polled almost 1,300 chefs across the nation - found that health and nutrition, smaller portions and a growing interest in incorporating more whole grains, fruits and vegetables into dishes were among the year's Top 20 Trends.

Libby Mills, registered dietitian, nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says chefs and restaurateurs can play a key role in shaping better eating habits by helping customers follow the recommendations of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“We know that 82 percent of adults eat out at least once a week … and that about a quarter of Americans' calories come from eating out,” Mills says. “People desire flexibility in restaurants to meet their different needs and wants.”

As a result, she continues, “Restaurateurs can step up and be proactive, and change perceptions that consumers have [about eating more nutritious meals]. The new frontier is how to make healthy food delicious.”

Mills, who also is a nutrition and cooking coach, cites a number of ways that chefs and restaurateurs can impact Americans' eating habits, which includes adding fruits, vegetables and whole grains to dishes, while decreasing the amount of sugar, fat and sodium.

The addition of roasted vegetables to an entrée as a side dish can be a creative and relatively easy way to start, she says. “During winter, you can offer chunks of butternut squash or other seasonal produce like cauliflower, rutabaga and beets,” she notes. Then, during the warmer months, make the switch to summer vegetables like tomatoes, zucchini, asparagus and other items.

She recommends replacing heavier cream-based sauces with lighter variations like a Spanish romesco sauce, which derives its dominant flavor and vibrant color from red pepper. Chutneys are another way to add diversity and flavor, she says.

Mills also recommends replacing familiar vegetables in preparations with more unexpected ingredients - like substituting jicama and apples for cabbage in slaw.

The inclusion of more plant-based proteins - such as beans, peas and lentils - in preparations can add flavor while helping to keep food costs down, she continues. “They're very neutral in flavor and give a good palate feel. They can be made into spreads and dips or served on flatbread or pizza.”

Finding ways to work whole grains such as quinoa, farro, kañiwa and sorghum into menus has been gaining popularity over the past several years. “Whole grains have an exotic appeal,” Mills says. “You can create a textured, nutty salad like tabouli or a grain cake plated along with an entrée or form it into a ball like arancini. You can also include whole grains in veggie burgers. And, unlike white rice, these grains can be toasted in the oven to enhance nuttiness.”

Many nutritionists say the overall reduction of sodium in menu items is a goal that chefs and restaurateurs should aim for — and one that likely will gain traction in the future. While it will take some time to change consumers' palates when it comes to the amount of salt they are used to, there are other interesting ways to heighten flavor, Mills notes.

She recommends using blends of herbs and spices and rubs to enhance flavor, while incorporating aromatics like lemongrass or kaffir leaves in recipes or even marinades. “You also can add wasabi or horseradish to dishes,” she says, adding that dipping sauces are another way to provide more intense flavors to a menu item.

And, as warm weather approaches, chefs can help accentuate seasonality through the use of cooking techniques that reduce fat, like cooking with broths. “During spring, we look for lighter fare and lighter tastes, and poaching addresses that,” she says. “In particular, you can sear a piece of salmon quickly on one side and then poach it quickly with vegetables.”

For other ideas, Mills recommends that culinarians visit the Academy's website, or

In the meantime, Mills encourages chefs and restaurateurs to take a leadership role in changing Americans' eating habits. “Increasingly, people desire flexibility in restaurants to meet their different needs and wants,” she says. “Restaurants can play a significant role in building healthful eating habits … and if you offer it, they will come. This is a great time to be a leader.”


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