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How to make a healthier menu

Need a healthy menu makeover? Here are the big categories to look at: adding more whole grains, supersizing veggies, making room for nuts and finding soda alternatives.

Most diners say they’d like to eat more healthfully but they don’t want to sacrifice taste. It’s the old “have your cake and eat it, too” syndrome. But for operators, these two desires may seem impossible to reconcile. Can you possibly make healthy menu changes that don’t compromise flavor?

The answer is a resounding “yes” if you change strategically and incrementally. Remember that small changes are the essence of evolution. Take one step at a time and keep your eyes on what’s ahead. Getting to a healthier menu is a journey, not a destination. Here are some things you can do right off the bat.

Replace Refined Starches with Whole Grains

Americans have largely moved away from whole grains, but elsewhere, these nutritious foods remain firmly on the menu. Here, for inspiration, are how cooks in other countries and from other cultures treat these wholesome grains:

Barley
Stuffing for roast duck (China).
Breakfast porridge (Scandinavia).
Twice-cooked rusks: These are softened in water, topped with chopped tomato, garlic, feta and basil and drizzled with olive oil (Greece).
Scotch broth: A soup of meaty lamb bones, barley, root vegetables and cabbage (Scotland).
Crispbread: Griddle-cooked flatbread made with barley flour and whole-wheat flour (Norway).

Buckwheat
Blini for caviar or smoked fish (Russia).
Kasha: Buckwheat groats, typically toasted with egg, then cooked in water or stock (Eastern Europe).
Kasha varnishkes: Buckwheat groats with egg noodles (Eastern Europe).

Corn
Tortillas (Mexico).
Buttermilk cornbread (Southern U.S.).
Garlic cheddar grits (Southern U.S.).
Cornmeal-blueberry pancakes (Southern U.S.).

Oats
Muesli: Breakfast cereal with rolled oats, dried fruit and nuts (Swiss).
Oatcakes: Scone-like baking-powder breads (Scotland).
Buttermilk oat bread: Baking-soda bread made with oats soaked in buttermilk (Ireland).

Wheat
Farro and borlotti bean soup (Italy).
Farrotto: Risotto made with farro and sometimes mushrooms (Italy).
Tabbouleh: Chopped parsley and bulgur salad with tomato, mint and lemon (Lebanon, Syria, Israel).
Bulgur pilaf with chickpeas (Turkey).
Bulgur and lentil soup (Turkey).
Green bean and bulgur pilaf (Turkey).
Bulgur and chickpea salad (Lebanon).
Greek soup of wheat berries, dried beans, lentils and rice (Crete).
Kibbeh: Ground lamb meatballs with bulgur (Middle East).

Supersized Fruits and Vegetables

Why should only burgers, fries and sodas be supersized? Consider revising at least some of your plate concepts to bring the vegetables center stage. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you look for ways to showcase produce:

  • Reposition vegetables as the feature, not the afterthought. Offer daily special sides, just as you have daily special entrees. “Today we’re featuring fresh Blue Lake beans. Would you like a bowl for the table?”
  • Develop complete plates that take the emphasis off animal protein. Other cultures and cuisines offer good models. Take a look at the Indian thali, a meal on a rimmed silver tray. There is no main course on a thali; the components—meat, legumes, vegetables, yogurt salad, rice and/or bread, pickles, relishes, sweets—have roughly equal weight. Indian flavors may not be appropriate to your operation, but you can
  • borrow the idea of the thali in rethinking plate balance.
  • Talk to your suppliers about fresh pre-cut product. Demand that they respond to your needs.
  • Make a whole-grain bread your primary (but not your only) offering.
  • Make whole-grain buns and sandwich breads available. Don’t position them as the “healthy” option. Slip the nutrition in.
  • Make brown rice an option. Experiment with less-familiar whole grains like wild rice, quinoa, farro, kasha, cracked wheat, bulgur and barley.
  • Go halfway to whole grains. Add wheat berries to a hamburger bun or serve a mixed rice pilaf, with white, brown and wild rice.

Bring on the Nuts

Tree nuts are an excellent source of monounsaturated fatty acids. Pounded nuts are the foundation
of many sauces in many cultures.

Spain
Romesco: A thick pounded sauce of dried chiles, pimiento, almonds and/or hazelnuts, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and wine vinegar. Serve with: Seafood.
Pepitoria: A thick sauce of ground almonds, fried garlic, bread, spices and hard-cooked egg. Serve with: chicken, rabbit, meatballs.
Picada: A mixture of nuts, bread, saffron, garlic, parsley and spices. Serve with: meatballs, chicken, fish, shrimp, squid.

Greece
Skordalia: A mortar-pounded sauce of stale bread, almonds or walnuts, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and lemon juice or wine vinegar. Some versions include yogurt. Serve with: Seafood or chicken; cooked beets; grilled vegetables.

Turkey
Tarator: A sauce of pounded almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts, with bread, garlic, water, lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil. Serve with: Seafood or vegetables.

Mexico
Mole: Many mistakenly think that chocolate is this sauce’s signature taste. In fact, many Mexican moles contain no chocolate, but they almost always contain toasted and ground nuts or seeds.

Beverage Alternatives to Soda
Reduce refined sugars without sacrificing taste.  

  • Make it fun with fruit garnishes, straws and eye-catching glassware.
  • Explore Mexico’s aguas frescas, lightly sweetened blends of fresh fruit and water.
  • Offer an iced mint or peach tea with sprigs of fresh mint. Try lemon grass, mint or chamomile tisane.
  • Low-fat yogurt drinks and smoothies offer lots of creative potential. Frozen fruit whipped with buttermilk makes a low-fat, high-fiber beverage with eye appeal.
  • Use club soda as a base for refreshing spritzers.
  • Buy a vegetable juicer and develop a signature cocktail.

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