Round out your menu with better-for-you options
It makes good business sense to appeal to as broad of a diner base as possible—without sacrificing culinary vision. Today, more diners seek better-for-you options when dining out. Indeed, Technomic's Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report (September 2010) bears that out: 47% of consumers strongly agree that they want restaurants to offer more foods that they consider to be healthy and 33% say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers some healthy options, even if they don't end up ordering a healthy choice. "It is clear that consumers do want restaurants to offer healthy options—even if they don't end up ordering them often or at all," says Kelly Weikel, Consumer Research Manager, Technomic. "Or they'll use healthy options to integrate a healthy element into their meal, so a healthy side with a more indulgent entrée, for example."
So, revamping an entire menu to attract diners seeking better-for-you options is not necessary. We tapped Renee Zonka, R.D., C.E.C., C.H.E. managing director and associate dean of The School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College, Chicago, for her ideas on how to incorporate wholesome ingredients—without all-new menu engineering. Here are her suggestions:
- Offer Portion Choices. Offer your diners full and half portions. It's a simple adjustment to the menu, and one that diners looking for smaller portions will appreciate.
- Add Whole Grains. Diners are more familiar with whole grains than in the past: quinoa, farro, amaranth. Cook them with stock and aromatics for added flavor. Add vegetables for color and texture.
- Look to Beans. Beans are nutritious, inexpensive and satisfying. They're great under fish or other lean proteins. As you reduce your protein size, beans offer value on the plate. Cook them with a flavorful broth. Use smoked meats and herbs to flavor, too.
- Make the Plate Pretty. How wholesome food looks is half the battle. Diners eat with their eyes. Make the plate beautiful—layer ingredients on top of each other. Make sure you use vibrant colors: spinach, saffron, cranberries, for instance.
- Use Reductions as Sauces. Instead of heavy sauces, consider making a reduction as your dish's sauce. For example, reduce balsamic vinegar, balancing it with a drizzle of olive oil.
- Go Local. Local generally means seasonal, and seasonal produce is usually picked at its nutritional peak. Nutrients are better developed the closer the produce is to the vine—and the colors and flavor are at their peak, too.
- Replace heavy cream with evaporated skim milk. "You get the viscosity of cream and the mouthfeel of cream, but without the fat," says Chef Zonka. She advises adding the evaporated milk at the beginning of a recipe rather than as a finish.
- Boost flavor in soups, stocks, marinades and vinaigrettes with miso. "I use it a lot. It adds umami, which is a whole other dimension in flavor," she says.
- Replace granulated sugar with maple syrup or agave nectar. "Just remember to adjust for liquid in the recipe, but it works really well," says Chef Zonka.
Renee Zonka, R.D., C.E.C., C.H.E.
Nearly half of respondents in Mintel International's June 2010 survey claimed to have eaten healthier foods at restaurants in the past year. Diners had various methods to improve their diet, with 67% saying they chose reduced-fat items and 52% saying they ate more fruits and vegetables. Nearly half of patrons said they cut calories by ordering less food.
Case Study: Uno Chicago Grill
Uno Chicago Grill strikes a successful balance between indulgent dishes and better-for-you dishes. Known for its deep-dish pizza, this 170-unit chain based in Boston looked at the better-for-you category and saw opportunity. "Our strategy is menu balance," says Christopher Gatto, C.E.C. vice president of food and beverage. "We know that food has to taste great, so that's the number-one priority, but we pay attention to nutritionals, too, and offer diners healthful options where we can." The chain, with Gatto leading recipe development, has succeeded. Its efforts were recognized in 2008 when Health Magazine named Uno Chicago Grill America's Healthiest Chain Restaurant.
Menu items that hone in on good nutritionals:
- The Five-Grain Flatbread Crust. One of three crust choices for the pizza. Much to Chef Gatto's surprise, it found a substantial niche: 25% of total flatbread pizza sales.
- Uno's Chicken Milanese. Gave this classic a better-for-you makeover. Instead of frying the chicken, Chef Gatto rolls it in a breadcrumb mix (panko, Romano cheese, basil) and bakes it. He then tops it with field greens, tomato, red onion, Parmesan and balsamic vinegar. "When we developed this version, we were trying to come up with subtle ways to make it better-for-you, but, as always, keep the flavor great," says Chef Gatto. "Our end result is actually much better than the classic fried product."
- Whole Grain Brown Rice. "This sells quite well for us," he says. He combines brown rice with thyme, seasoning, onion, carrot and sweetened dried cranberries.
- Farro Salad. Brand new on the menu, it sees farro mixed with diced tomato, cucumber and balsamic vinaigrette.
Chef Christopher Gatto, C.E.C.