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National Nutrition Month celebrates health initiatives

SHAPE March 2017

Chefs, restaurateurs can craft menu items that offer their customers more healthful choices.

Chefs and restaurateurs are well positioned to promote this year's National Nutrition Month by helping to encourage Americans to make healthier eating choices and  to bring nutrition to the forefront of consumers' awareness.

“Put Your Best Fork Forward,” the theme of the event, maintains that people possess the proper tools to make more nutritious dining decisions, and that making gradual changes in our dining habits can help improve the nation's health now and in the future.

“It's important to bring nutrition to the forefront of peoples' awareness,” says Libby Mills, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which is sponsoring the event. “There is a greater interest among chefs to be in the nutrition vanguard. People are eating out more often these days, and chefs should see themselves as being leaders in his area.”

A recent Gallup study found that 61 percent of Americans ate dinner at a restaurant at least once in the last seven days, and 16 percent were frequent diners, eating dinner out three or more times in that period.

As a result, offering a wider spectrum of nutritious menu selections is on the agenda for many members of the restaurant community. The National Restaurant Association's 2017 Culinary Forecast — which polled nearly 1,300 members of the American Culinary Federation — found that health and nutrition, and a growing interest in incorporating more whole grains, fruits and vegetables into dishes were among the year's trends.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics launched the wellness-centric event in March 1973 to address the growing  need that the public has for more information about healthful eating and the desire among consumers to make more informed food choices. Originally conceived as a weeklong event, it was expanded in 1980 to become National Nutrition Month.

With Americans dining out more frequently, chefs and restaurateurs have increasingly stepped up their efforts to provide customers with more flavorful, nutritious choices, Mills says. “Chefs can make a big difference [in the way people eat],” she adds. “They're exposing the public to more healthful ingredients.”

One of the central concerns among chefs and restaurateurs, however, is how to ensure that they do not sacrifice taste for good nutrition. “How to make healthy food delicious is the new frontier,” Mills says.

Mills, who also is a nutrition and cooking coach, suggests a number of ways chefs and operators can have an effect on consumers' eating habits.

Reducing salt
For example, it is generally accepted that Americans get too much salt in their diets, which can contribute to high blood pressure and hypertension. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults and children ages 14 years and older limit their sodium intake to between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams a day. In fact, the average person's daily intake of sodium is estimated to be about 3,400 milligrams, or about 1 ½ teaspoons of table salt.

However, there are creative ways to heighten flavor while reducing salt in recipes, Mills says. She recommends using blends of herbs, spices and rubs to enhance flavor, while incorporating aromatics like lemongrass, wasabi or horseradish in recipes. Marinades also can provide more intense flavors.

Flavoring a dish with gremolata — a combination of garlic, parsley and lemon zest — can brighten a savory dish or salad. Fines herbes — a blend of tarragon, chervil, chives and parsley — also can enhance a salad as well as other menu items.

In recipes that call for the reduction of rich tasting fats like butter or cream, herbs, spices and rubs also can be used as flavor supplements.

Vegetable solutions
The relatively recent promotion of seasonal vegetables to the center-of-the-plate in restaurants opens a big door for nutrition-minded chefs too. Wood-fired grilled vegetables have emerged as a main dish alternative as well as being a key component in lighter sauces. On-trend vegetable dishes like grilled cauliflower steaks flavored with a marinade or spice-herb rub have been gaining in popularity.

In addition, chefs are finding that by blending mushrooms with ground meat, they can create items like burgers, meatloaf or meatballs that are more flavorful, moister, more nutritious and have a better texture.

But while wood-fired grilled vegetables can stand alone on the plate, they also can be incorporated into great sauces, Mills says. She cites a Spanish romanesco sauce, which includes roasted red peppers, almonds, garlic and currants. “It makes a beautiful sauce with lots of flavor, and contains vitamin C, fiber from vegetables, protein from almonds and allicin from garlic,” she says.

Alternative grains
Chefs looking for ways to make the dishes more nutritious and tasty are also turning to such lesser used whole grains as quinoa, farro, spelt and sorghum. “You can include a hearty rye bread on the menu or include a grain like amaranth into your bread dough,” Mills says. Whole grains can also be used create a nutty salad like tabouli or a grain cake served alongside an entrée. Whole grains can also be used to make flavorful veggie burgers.

Plant-based proteins
The use of plant-based proteins such as beans, peas and lentils in recipes can add flavor while also helping to keep food costs down. In addition to being used in main dishes and as spreads or dips, they can also be used in flatbread making. For example, Mills says, a chickpea flour mixture can be combined to make an Italian pancake called farinata. “It's a way of adding more nutrients and fiber,” she says.

And while tofu may not be for everybody, observes Mills, “There are some customers who will be ecstatic to find it on the menu.” To give tofu more flavor, she recommends marinating it first in soy, ginger and garlic, and then heating it in a skillet or on the grill.

Overall, experts agree, chefs and restaurateurs can take an active role in helping Americans eat better by offering more nutritious, craveable menu items. “Chefs can make a big difference,” Mills says. “By exposing the public to more healthful dishes and ingredients, they're in a powerful position. They're raising the bar of healthful foods.”



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