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Skeptical about building a ‘healthy’ menu? Consider a different approach.

By Katya Baxter, Nutritionist,

For years we have been told what ‘healthy’ eating means. The low fat, low calorie, low this, low that – unfortunately, this perception has become deeply rooted in our minds. It is no wonder that for chefs who have been trained to approach cooking as an art, the idea of ‘healthy’ cooking can be quite dreadful. If you are a chef, this post might help you break out of this mindset so you can start enjoying healthy cooking just as much as you enjoy cooking everything else.

Let me give you an example of two banquet menus. If I told you that each has the exact same number of calories, protein, carbs and fat, which one has a stronger appeal?

  • 4 egg white omelet made with a non-sticky zero calorie spray
  • side of vegetarian links
  • oatmeal (instant) with brown sugar and raisins
  • low fat bran muffin (made with trans fat free, low fat margarine)
  • individually packaged non-fat yogurt with mixed in fruits
  • orange juice
  • 4 egg ham & veggie omelet (made with half the yolks)
  • buckwheat pancakes with fresh fruit, pumpkin seeds, and maple syrup
  • yogurt parfait with berries and granola
  • steel cut oatmeal ‘creme brulee’ garnished with fruit compote and walnuts
  • freshly baked whole grain banana nut bread
  • unsweetened orange juice

For many, the answer is clear. Menu 1 is full of ingredients that are altered and processed even though they tend to be considered ‘healthy’. Menu 2 consists of dishes created from minimally processed ingredients that are rich in fibre, good fats, vitamins and minerals. I can imagine many would agree that Menu 2 is also much more easy on the taste buds.

So how do we naturally switch our perception from Menu 1 to Menu 2?  I’ve put together these three simple questions you can ask yourself before constructing your healthy menu:

  1. Do my ingredients represent what they are supposed to represent? An example would be a fat free sour cream. By definition, a sour cream cannot be called sour cream if it doesn’t have any fat in it. Cream is made of fat and a fat free sour cream is a synthetic imitation of the real thing. It does not represent what it is supposed to represent. Same goes for imitation meat, cheese, eggs, etc.
  2. Have I explored all other possibilities for this meal? In our example above,  sausage links, muffins and oatmeal are not the only breakfast options. You can use wholesome ingredients to create healthy versions of pancakes, waffles, omelets, quiches, yogurt parfaits, etc.
  3. Are my portions representative of the ‘healthy’ way of eating? This is where you can truly influence your customers: you will now be giving them a filling, nutrient-packed meal that does not have to take up the entire plate. Instead, consider filling up the space with fruits, veggies or garnishes that are high in vitamins and minerals but low in calories.

Remember, just because something is fat-free, or reduced-calorie, it doesn’t mean that it is healthy. You are better off using a smaller amount of the ‘real’ product and reducing your portion size than a full amount of a synthetic or processed version.

If we want change to take place around us, we all need to chip in. With culinary profession taking the center stage in our society, it is clear that chefs can have a tremendous influence on the way the rest of us perceive food and eating. Healthy cooking can and should be just as exciting as ‘regular’ cooking. The same goes for healthy eating. If we can put these two together by shaking off our deeply ingrained perceptions, we will all be on the road to creating a healthier life.

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