Monday, March 29, 2010

Teaching Taste

We like what we know and we eat what we like. The idea of “comfort food” is based on what is familiar to us, particularly from our childhoods. My friends find it strange that my idea of comfort food involves anything that comes from the freezer and is re-heated, but that’s what I grew up eating with two working parents. Fish sticks and tater tots were a very common meal along with Marie Calendar’s Pot Pies. I would think that a lot of kids these days will associate comfort food with the fast food meals that many children of working families are quite familiar with.

What if we changed the idea of comfort food for the next generation? What if what was familiar and comforting shifted from fried and heavily salted to fresh and nutrient dense? Instead of Kraft Mac and Cheese we craved quinoa with fresh tomatoes and feta. I think that this concept is on the minds of many school districts and nutrition advocates. The controversy over school lunches has been going on for years now. Too tight food budgets from the school districts aren’t leaving much room for culinary innovation, healthier food materials, or labor involved in preparing fresh meals.

Many school districts have begun making changes in their school foodservice offerings. Salad bars are much more common in school cafeterias, and many pilot programs around the country even include school gardens. Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity is bringing even more attention (and funding) to the subject. The common goal seems to be to not only teach good nutrition in the classroom, but also to teach taste in the dining room.

This shift in what children get offered needs to come not only from schools, but also from Mom and Dad. Busy parents (like my own as a child) tend to look for convenience when feeding their families, often leading to frozen or just add X meals as well as many meals out. Restaurants have begun to respond to the need for more nutritious kid food by offering healthier choices in their kids’ meals. I’ve been seeing a lot of new side options for kids’ meals like steamed broccoli, apple slices, and yogurt, and I’ve even seen some restaurants offer chicken strips grilled instead of fried.

I think that we can all agree that the obesity epidemic is no quick fix, but I think that this group effort in getting kids healthier food offerings is a step in the right direction and I’m quite optimistic.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Restaurants Replacing Home Ec

I can’t stop thinking about the comments that I received after a blog I wrote a few months ago about how menu labeling was not having the desired effect on some restaurants in low income areas. A lot of you brought up some really good points about consumer responsibility and education, but I was really intrigued by the comments that I got about lack of cooking skills and less in-home food preparation. I was a bit shocked to hear restaurant industry professionals advocating meals eaten away from their restaurants, but the points are valid, and from recent statistics it looks like restaurants don’t have much to worry about in regards to competition with I current day home economists.

Once upon a time Home Economics was taught in schools (so my mother tells me), not only in high schools, but you could get a college degree in the subject. What was once the Home Ec cooking classroom at my University had been converted into a “cooking lab” by the time I got there. Where students once learned to master the kitchen in aspirations of creating well-run household, we learned the effects that different food chemicals had on each other in hopes of someday making enough money to support 50% of a modern-day life.

With most households having two working parents these days, going out to eat is much more common than it was back in the days of home economists. Picking something up or going out to eat is just easier for many families after a full day of work than trying to prepare nightly meals, not to mention many people in generations X and Y haven’t a clue how to cook more than toast, we were never taught.

In 2008 the National Restaurant Association reported that 48% of the average household food budget went to restaurants (up from 25% in 1995). Another study from The U.S. Energy Information Administration in 2001 reports major decreases in home meal preparation as compared to the early 1990’s. This movement away from the kitchen and into restaurant dining rooms is said to be partially to blame for our current obesity epidemic.

Even though restaurants are beginning to offer more health conscious choices, consumers will never have the control over what goes into their meals that they do by preparing meals themselves. By preparing meals at home consumers can prioritize their dietary needs (i.e. low sodium, limited carbohydrates, gluten free, …etc) in their meals by modifying their ingredients, whereas in restaurants priority will always lean towards flavor.

People seem to have more specialized dietary needs than ever before (diabetes, hypertension/salt sensitivity, gluten intolerance, allergies…etc), and are consequently putting their health in the hands of strangers when it comes to dining out. As a result restaurants are more responsive than ever to accommodate special orders based on their demands.

I wonder if American society will ever return to cooking most meals at home. What do you think?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ordering by Numbers

Getting more for less is the American way; it’s what we look for when we buy, and what we market when we sell. Since the economy took a turn for the worst we’ve been seeing a rise in “more food for less money” promotion (i.e. 3 courses for only $15.99). Now, we’re beginning to see a new kind of “more for less” special offered throughout the industry. What was once “choose from 5 meals under $10.99” is now “choose from 5 meals under 600 CALORIES”. Calories are a new currency for diners to barter with, and restaurants are happy to provide them with “deals” that don’t have anything to do with price.

Now that healthy eating is becoming a must for so many American consumers it makes sense that they are putting themselves on calorie budgets. With Americans eating out as much as we do it’s no wonder why consumers are putting pressure on the food industry to help them stick to their regiments. I know that many of you may be reading this and thinking the classic argument “people know that when they’re eating a cheeseburger it’s bad for them”, and yes, to that I say you’re right, they do, but do they know that when they’re eating a stuffed salad it may be higher in fat than that cheeseburger? or that by passing on a petite steak they may be overlooking a healthy option? Most don’t, and that’s why they’re asking.

Subway was the first chain to offer healthy deals in the form of “7 great subs under 7 grams of fat”. Now restaurants like Applebee’s have jumped on the bandwagon with their own caloric “value meals” with their under 550 calorie menu. The campaign is all about the bargain – all this great food for under 550 calories, no skimpy portions, and all the great taste you come to expect without braking the caloric bank; now that’s value!

McDonald’s, Starbucks, and many others have also added lighter calorie options to their menus, and with good reason. A study by the University of Missouri showed that consumers were willing to pay up to $2.00 more per menu item for low calorie options that have accompanying nutrition information. And, in a more recent study done by Stanford University, Starbucks profits showed a slight increase in some locations after calorie values were provided.

Whether it be purse strings or waistlines consumers are looking to budget and get a deal. Limiting calories in meals may be a new and scary step for chefs to take on, but it’s paving the way for innovation n in both cooking and marketing.

Friday, March 19, 2010

What the Others are Doing

I’m always thinking about different ways that restaurants can appeal to the ever growing crowd of health conscious diners. There’s the obvious salad with dressing on the side and grilled chicken breast or salmon filet; but good business, especially in the food industry comes from innovation. It also comes from what I call innovative reproduction (AKA taking ideas from others and doing it better). I found an article on health.com titled America’s Top 10 Healthiest Fast Food Restaurants and thought it may be a good source of such innovation. I’ll let you read the article for the restaurants themselves and the commentary about what makes them so healthyfuly appealing, but I’ll share with you what stuck out to me as excellent opportunities for innovation.

Whole Wheat/Grains – Mentioned six times in the list, and come to think of it I’ve been seeing a lot lately; pizza places offering whole wheat crust, Mexican restaurants offering whole wheat tortillas, now noodle houses offering whole grain pasta. Whole grains have been big in the retail food world for a long time, and now they’re the “it” thing in restaurants too.

Minis – Mentioned five times in the list. Portion control is a great way to cut calories. Not only are you saving money on food costs, but diners still get to enjoy some of their classic favorites, just in more health conscious sizes.

Black beans – Mentioned three times in the list. High in fiber and protein and low in fat and very filling; it’s a win-win-win ingredient.

Soup – Mentioned Twice in the list. Soup in big in the San Francisco financial district where I work. It’s cheap to make and loaded with flavor even when it’s not loaded with calories (although some can be).

Options – A lot of people were surprised by McDonald’s presence on the list, but when you think about it, they really do offer a lot of options to dieters. Sure they offer double quarter-pounders, but they have also come out with healthy snack wraps and low-fat salads, a lot more than a lot of other restaurants have undertaken.

Other frequently mentioned healthy menu concepts included organics, oven-roasting, chicken, build-you-owns, and fresh vegetables.

If you have been thinking about adding healthy items to your menu now is the time!

Health Halos

In business and marketing we’re always trying to hit on the latest buzzwords; what are people looking for right now? In nutrition I like to use the words “empower” and “satisfy”; when looking for good place to eat the two hottest words in the industry are “value” and “fresh”. According to report by Hartman Group the importance of freshness to consumers has not only increased the popularity of farmers markets, but has also changed the way people look at foods when dining out.

The term fresh seems to also increase a food’s integrity, making it seem safer and healthier. With people looking for healthier dining options all the time and hopping on all sorts of health bandwagons (i.e. organic, sustainable, local, green, …etc.) fresh seems to be a kind of catch all, giving it an all around health halo. It got me thinking about other ways that restaurants can position themselves to provide fresher or healthier themes to their offerings.

Restaurants like Subway, Wendy’s, and In-and-Out have begun to offer “healthier” sides and substitutions. When you go to most casual dining restaurants you have the option of ordering your entrĂ©e with “fries or a salad”. Breakfast now usually comes with the option of substituting your hash browns for “fresh” fruit, and any burger place you go to now offers you your burger patty in some sort of low-carbed, bunless styling. I was amazed the other day to go into a submarine sandwich shop and have them offer me my sub “scooped” (they scoop the center of the bread out of the roll to reduce carb and calorie content). Oh, and my favorite – at Hooters you can order your wings “skinny” or not battered.

Different cuisines also seem to impart health halos. Japanese is considered a healthier cuisine, as well as Tex-Mex, while Chinese and Mexican themed eateries can sometimes carry junk food connotations. All of these cuisines have healthy and unhealthy signature items. What sets them apart? Freshness. Think about it; Japanese has sushi which has to be fresh as opposed to the typical wok-fried dishes of Chinese cuisine, and Tex-Mex is known for its use of fresh ingredients as opposed to the lard-laden offerings of traditional Mexican.

Another health halo that I am a huge fan of is the “healthy menu”. You know, you go to some sort of quick serve or casual dining restaurant and there it is at the bottom of the menu: “On the Lighter Side” or “Smarter Choices”, or “Healthy Bites”. The key is that there are a handful of items that are healthier than the rest of the menu that can for whatever reason attract the health hunters while keeping the main menu classic and focused on the restaurant’s traditions and focus.

Although freshness and healthy eating are still becoming more prominent players in the restaurant industry and cuisine in general, I wouldn’t call it a trend. I think these are themes that we will be dealing with for a long time, giving chefs and food marketing experts lots of time and opportunity to continue with this sort of creativity.

What else have you seen or done to make menus healthier?