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The Healthy Pantry: Buy Into the Lifestyle

It’s no longer enough to add a couple of salads to the menu and call it “healthy.” Offering a variety of options in every category is necessary to stay competitive in today’s marketplace.

The National Restaurant Association last year revealed that 76 percent of adults and 40 percent of teens were trying to eat more healthfully than they did a year earlier. But while consumers are demanding more nutritious choices, most are not looking for menus devoid of indulgence. Dining out is still considered celebratory. And the definition of “healthy” can by hazy, often varying with the individual eater. The trick is to discover the right balance for your operation—in both purchasing and plating.

What is healthy?

Ask your customers to define “healthy eating” and you’ll hear various answers. Some equate health with low fat, others with fewer carbs or calories, while still others say “additive-free,” “sustainable” or “organic.” “Better for you” often takes the place of “healthy” to send a more positive message. And “natural” is also big.

“Our initial research showed that healthy meant lower in fat and calories,” says Dino Lambridis, co-founder of EVOS, which offers burgers, air-baked fries and other items with 50 to 70 percent less fat and calories. But recently, Lambridis reports, Americans have upped the ante. An item also has to taste really good and fit natural, organic and/or sustainable guidelines.

Tips from the CIA

Chances are you’re already purchasing many items that are the foundation for healthier menu options, such as fresh produce, lean meats, seafood, brown rice and whole grain breads. To help take the next steps, we turned to the new Techniques of Healthy Cooking, a book by the Culinary Institute of America, and Frederick Brash, an instructor at the CIA in Hyde Park.

Expand your grain supply. The “healthy” restaurant plate should focus on grains or complex carbs, fruits and vegetables, with protein taking up a smaller piece of real estate. Rice, couscous, barley, quinoa, wheat berries and farro are versatile and flavorful; Brash uses them in salads. Millet, spelt and amaranth are gaining familiarity. 

Experiment with soy foods. Tofu and edamame are both user-friendly menu additions. Brash often chooses firm tofu for Asian dishes like Pad Thai in place of seafood. And he favors smoked tofu (which comes ready-made) for salads. Edamame can be purchased frozen to go into stir-fries or purees. 

Get into legumes. Purchase dried beans in a variety of colors and shapes to add to vegetarian items, soups, salads and dips. Brash whips up cooked, frozen lima beans with onion, garlic and cilantro for a bread spread. Canned beans are a handy alternative; drain and rinse before using to reduce sodium.

Choose healthy oils. The industry is researching ways to eliminate trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils and shortenings. Plant breeding to reduce linolenic acid in soybeans is producing more low-linolenic oils. Along with safflower, sunflower, corn and canola oil, these are neutral-tasting trans-fat-free options that perform well at high temperatures. Heart-healthy olive oil is good for poaching, sauteing, drizzling and in salad dressings. Brash is also partial toward grapeseed oil. 

Count on condiments. Vinegars, Asian sauces, mustards and salsas are low-fat pantry staples. Vinegars are an especially wise choice—they add lots of flavor with little or no sodium or calories. Brash recommends an assortment, including balsamic, raspberry and sherry vinegar; he often reduces them to sauce meats, vegetables and seafood.

Play with salt. Over-consumption of sodium is a health problem, but the source is primarily processed foods—not the salt shaker. Brash now uses natural sea salt instead of kosher salt—it delivers big flavor with less quantity. Or he suggests smoked salt for cooking and fleur de sel as a finishing salt. 

Sourcing strategies 

When health is a priority, sourcing can be a challenge—sometimes more so for emerging chains where volume, price and consistency are major considerations. But a few small concepts have found effective ways to get the right stuff.

EVOS

Tampa, Florida, 5 locations

Timing is everything, says EVOS co-founder Dino Lambridis. With the strong demand for healthier eating in restaurants, the industry is responding with a greater quantity and quality of products. “When we launched in 1994, it was very difficult to source ‘fast food’ that fit our healthier guidelines,” he recalls. “But Sysco was intrigued by our mission and growth plans and they took us under their wing.” The mega-broadliner now supplies 90 to 95 percent of EVOS’ products, including all-natural hormone-free beef, EVOS’ signature air-baked fries product, dairy foods and organic salad greens.

With a menu that balances low-fat, organic, natural and vegetarian items, Lambridis sometimes has to work with individual manufacturers to reformulate a product to fit EVOS’ criteria—removing an ingredient to make the product vegan, for example. “Our goal is to use food products made with a minimal amount of ingredients and maximum taste,” he says. Lambridis also considers the ethics of his suppliers to make sure their policies jibe with his. Once a company passes muster, his final question is “Can Sysco bring it in?”

Justix

Roswell, Georgia, 2 locations

“Eating healthy was not convenient.” That was the motivation for starting Justix three years ago, says Cindy Lupi, who with her husband John developed the concept. The menu features grilled skewers of meat, chicken and seafood that customers mix and match with sides (brown rice, ginger slaw or roasted veggies, for example) and 13 made-from-scratch sauces. “We promote healthy fast food but we’re realistic and support moderation,” Lupi explains. So while a grill and convection oven dominate the kitchen, a small fryer is also used for sweet potato fries and potato wedges.

Lupi sources all-natural chicken in 4-ounce loaves that are portion cut in house down the middle into 2-ounce pieces to fit the skewers. Ditto for the beef, pork and salmon. Organic tofu and portabella mushroom options are also available. An order of three stix weighs in at 6 ounces, but patrons can downsize to two skewers. “Portion control is a priority for our customers,” says Lupi.

Right now, Justix relies on regional distributor Queens Gate in Kentucky to source its fresh and dry goods, receiving deliveries three to five times a week. “As we grow through franchising, we’ll look for food purveyors in each area that meet our specs,” Lupi notes.

UFood Grill 

Newton, Massachusetts, 9 locations

UFood’s mission has changed along with its name; it was founded as the Knowfat Lifestyle Grille. Nutrient-dense fuel—not flavor—attracted the body builders and body-conscious who initially frequented the place. Now the concept offers a wide variety of globally inspired items that meet healthy guidelines.

“My first objective was to banish ‘bland’ by ramping up flavor and presentation,” says Efrem Cutler, VP product development and corporate chef. Items such as Kickin’ Thai Chicken and a balsamic-marinated Portabella Wrap prove the point. He’s applied the same higher standards to his supply chain, seeking out whole-grain artisan breads, sourcing proteins like lean beef, bison, turkey and turkey bacon from a purveyor in Vermont and working with manufacturers to develop proprietary products.

“A spice company helped me create my own Chef’s Grill Seasonings. Not only do these spices heighten flavor without added fat, some naturally raise metabolism to help burn calories,” Cutler explains. Another manufacturer formulated an antioxidant-rich blueberry-pomegranate vinaigrette for UFood’s salads and Costa Fruit and Produce, a local distributor, created a bagged fresh vegetable blend. Cutler even partnered with food giant Land ’O Lakes to source a high-quality burger cheese. “The company was already producing pre-sliced, processed American and Swiss cheese, but they heeded our call and came out with all-natural slices that were low in fat and sodium,” he says.

More manufacturers have now moved into UFood’s court, as the concept gears up for growth. U.S. Foodservice delivers a majority of the chain’s grocery items and DOT, all its refrigerated foods. Cutler also contracts with local producers for specialty and seasonal goods.

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