Your dining rooms and grills can be critical battlegrounds for members and guests who are trying to eat healthier. To be a good ally, emphasize “good vs. bad” rather than “less vs. more.”
“Americans now consume fully one-third of their daily intake of calories outside the home,” says a CNN.com analysis of a report prepared by The Keystone Center. The report was requested and funded by the Food and Drug Administration, to try to help people better understand and manage what they eat outside their homes.
Statistics aside, common sense tells us we can’t ignore the impact of restaurant food on not only our waist sizes, but also on cholesterol, blood pressure, and the myriad of other food-influenced health indicators. In a club setting—where diners often let their guards down— the need to provide healthy food is even more pronounced; some members, in fact, actually eat club food more than they eat at home or any other restaurant. Shouldn’t the bulk of their food intake in your dining rooms and grills be healthy—or at least not harmful?
Try to serve more whole grains. Rice, though not a whole grain, is still considered a step in the right direction—away from starches.
A Universal Concern
“When I came here five years ago, our membership was mostly older, so they were concerned with portion size, salt content, and so on,” says Erika Decker, Executive Chef at Rocky Fork Hunt and Country Club in Gahanna, Ohio. “But now, I’ve noticed that younger members, and even their kids, are interested, too.”
Chef Decker has a very personal relationship with her members; they often come back into the kitchen, in fact, to talk about the food she prepares for them. She also conducts cooking classes, which provide another chance for her to talk to members and their guests about healthy eating.
Mark Erickson, Executive Vice President of Continuing Education at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park,N.Y., believes you have to carefully assess what your members really want—not just what they say they want.
“As we’ve learned, most people say they want healthier food, but when it’s offered, those same customers will not choose it, because they’ve had too many experiences that food listed as healthy is not as satisfying from a flavor standpoint,” he says. To Erickson, “Success means you can put a healthy dish on the menu and not have to label it as such; [you can] let the dish stand on its own merit of taste, and deliver its healthfulness in a ‘stealthy’ way.”
In fact, while it’s often felt to be a valuable service to make special note of the “healthy” items on a menu, this good intention can backfire. “If you are truly committed to offering healthy foods for your members and guests, you really aren’t helping them if you only call out a few selected items for those who are looking to eat healthfully—it’s like preaching to the choir,” says Erickson. “The people you want to have eating more healthfully are the ones who probably wouldn’t order healthy foods if they were labeled as such.”
The Facts on Fats
Both Decker and Erickson agree that eating healthy is not the same as eating for weight loss. Erickson is quick to point out that new research has shot holes in the benefit of low-fat diets, through the discovery that not all fats are bad. Olive oil, for instance, is perfectly acceptable in healthy cooking, despite its high fat content. Nut, seed and vegetable oils are also filled with healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
It’s the saturated fats (from meat and dairy) and transfats (from margarine and shortening, hydrogenated oils and most commercial fryer oils) that are unhealthy. Saturated fats can be reduced by using well-trimmed and lean cuts of meat, and judicious use of dairy. Transfats, on the other hand, should be eliminated completely. The easiest change is the fryer oil, as it won’t require new recipes or a complete inventory overhaul.
Rocky Fork’s Decker thinks it’s easier to do all of this with a little help from your supplier friends. “If you have a relationship with purveyors, let them know [you are trying to remove transfats], so they can help,” she counsels.
In addition to using quality fats, there are several other ways to boost the nutritional quotient of a meal. Erickson suggests making vegetables—not the meat and sauce—the star of the plate, and substituting whole grains for starches whenever possible. That’s not to say you can’t offer mashed potatoes or corn from time to time. Just make an effort to get more variety into the menu.
Despite all of the member interest at her club in healthy eating, Decker cannot recall a time when a member or guest asked about low fat or otherwise light food. Small portion sizes may be the reason why. At Rocky Fork, the portions are small enough so each diner can order several courses, without worrying about their waistlines or the need to share. Decker’s members get value from trying multiple courses from an ever-changing menu—not from piles of food taken home for leftovers. Those watching their weight can simply order fewer courses without having to substitute ingredients or forego their favorites.
There’s a bonus for the Rocky Fork kitchen staff, too: Because the plates are so small, they can have more fun trying new recipes and introducing members to more exotic ingredients. Further, the members don’t have to worry too much about not liking something, as they’ll most likely be eating several courses anyway. When portions are so large that one person can’t comfortably finish an entrée, it’s riskier for a diner to order the unknown.
But even if tiny portions aren’t de rigueur at your club or resort, it’s still important to keep portion sizes reasonable. Even if you don’t rigorously adhere to USDA guidelines, keep them in mind, and also look at how much uneaten food comes back to the dishwashers. Remember that if it’s in front of them, people will eat more than they necessarily want.
Know—and Tell—the Source
At Rocky Fork Hunt and Country Club, members often inquire about where Chef Decker sources her food. They ask because they know she takes great pride in using local ingredients whenever she can.
“I like to source a product that I know where it’s come from. I know what it’s been fed and I know how it’s been fed,” she explains. “You can better explain where a product comes from and what the difference is.”
She has featured locally raised chicken, a local ice cream maker, and also makes an effort to hunt down unique fishes. One of her current favorites is Branvino, a European sea bass that hasn’t yet been over-fished. “As a club, you have more of a budget, so you can be more flexible,” she notes.
No Longer an Issue
Going back to the idea that people often rely on their club chefs for a great deal of their nutrition, the quality of your menu can be a factor in the number of covers you generate. “[Members] need to be able to dine [at their club] frequently without feeling guilty or unsatisfied with its impact on their health,” says Erickson. “Also, don’t forget the ‘veto vote’ concern, where even though one member of the household would be perfectly happy with the menu, [dining at the club] might be vetoed by the spouse, who may not be able to get the healthier fare they either want for themselves or desire for their spouse.”
“If we get it right,” Erickson believes, “we may be able to stop needing to talk about healthy foods as if they are special—and just serve good food that is inherently healthy.”
Summing It Up
• Be careful about how you point out the “healthy” dishes on your menus; you could scare off diners who might otherwise order the dish.
• Replace fryer oils and other transfatladen ingredients with healthier options, and limit saturated fat by trimming meats well and cutting back on cream-based soups and sauces.
• Feature vegetables as the star of a dish—not an afterthought—and try replacing starches with whole grains.
• Keep portions to a reasonable size, even if you don’t strictly follow USDA guidelines.
• Try sourcing local ingredients. They’ll arrive fresher, and you’ll gain an opportunity to talk to members about the quality of what’s used in their food.
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