Recipes & Skills >> Browse Articles >> Restaurant Planning Tools

Recipes & Skills >> Browse Articles >> Techniques / Guides


Menu Development for Healthy Cooking

Menu Development for Healthy Cooking

Culinary Institute of America

Knowing Your Customers’ Needs

When asked, most people will say they want to eat more healthfully. They know that whole grains, lean meats and poultry, fish, and vegetables are good for them, but too often they perceive these foods to be unappealing. Healthy eating is associated with deprivation and food that just doesn’t taste “right.” No matter what people say, if healthy food doesn’t taste good they won’t eat it. At the same time, if your menu offers only high-calorie foods that are high in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates, your customers may be resentful at the lack of healthy choices.

The challenge for chefs is to build a menu that incorporates healthy options that look and taste tempting. You cannot control what your customers order, and you may not have any idea what other foods they have eaten that day, but you can offer options that will provide a nutritious meal. Emphasizing the positive— that you do offer—is as important as focusing on what you limit. Some people will interpret a phrase like low-fat to mean bland. Rather than highlighting the lack of fat in your recipes, you may wish to spotlight the ingredients and techniques that indicate flavor and nutrition. Instead of positioning foods as a “healthy” option, simply make them available. Add whole-grain breads to your bread baskets, or allow guests to choose white or brown rice as a side dish.

People who are interested in healthy eating usually are able to identify menu items that meet their needs. Thorough descriptions of each dish, including words that describe the side dishes and ingredients in a sauce or coating, will help them spot acceptable choices. Cooking terms like grilled or broiled let consumers know that a dish is likely to be much lower in fat than a deep-fried or crispy food. Meat eaters will appreciate knowing whether the steak entrée features a filet, a sirloin, or a porterhouse, and whether the steak is six or sixteen ounces. Even a dessert menu might highlight a flavorful, nutrient-rich triple-berry sauce rather than caramel, crème anglaise, or whipped cream.

A well thought out menu will include a balance of salads (including entrée salads) and pastas, fish, poultry, and vegetarian entrées as well as meats. Allowing guests to order a half portion or to split an entrée gives those with smaller appetites the opportunity to limit portions. Including a variety of appetizers, especially choices that are not fried or high in refined carbohydrates, enables patrons to order items from your starter menu as their main course.

Permitting substitutions of side dishes indicates that you are willing to accommodate guests’ nutrition needs and preferences. Although excessive substitutions and special orders can wreak havoc in a busy kitchen and may throw off inventory, ultimately this is information a chef needs to succeed.

Developing a menu and the accompanying recipes is often a work in progress. As each change is introduced, you need to track its reception among your patrons and your staff. If any refinements are needed, they can be made based upon feedback.

Reprinted by permission from The Culinary Institute of America, “Techniques of Healthy Cooking” (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2008).