SpotLight: How healthy is your Menu?
Weekly by Sarah Muxlow ~ exclusive for 4Hoteliers.com
Wednesday, 14th June 2006
When deciding what to introduce to this seasons menu, is it hard to neglect the rising numbers of nutritionally savvy customers? The current new wave of healthy eating, means customers are weighing up where to eat, what to eat and how much to eat.  

International cuisine and service styles have had many changes over the years. The changes have been not only in produce popularity, cooking methods but also the presentation. The shift has recently been from nouvelle cuisine to an all you can eat buffet, forward to "what exactly is it I'm eating?"

Eating out statistics indicate that going to a restaurant has become more than trying this seasons new dishes, or enjoying something you wouldn't cook at home. The chef's special and the dining experience do have an influence but it is fair to say in many societies today, eating out is now simply part of weekly living. This regularity, alongside shifts in preferences create a new challenge beyond marrying flavours, textures and vision.

Statistically there is a worldwide increase in casual dining. Relaxed or ‘casual' diners have a high spending power and are keen to eat out. They have increased their number of visits to any given venue and are likely to try and taste their way through the menu. Focusing on a good balanced and varied menu is essential to attracting and retaining this regular clientele.

When chefs go off to boot camp they are looking at menu profitability. Given that menu's attract and retain customers the focus is also on how will the menu boost the bottom line. If well priced and designed it can. Alongside profitability is the need to consider menu trends, customer profiling and the latest research.

A second rise in worldwide statistics is the international obesity, heart disease, diabetes or food allergy rates. Whilst there is no correlation, it is fairly safe to say, diners are more likely to be on the heavier side than in the past and may have speciality dietary needs. One debate this has reopened is the need for quality portions over quantity.

Prompted by food awareness campaigns, guests in this casual dining category are keen to know the contents of the meal they've ordered. Alongside food manufacturers needing to label in depth the contents of their products, restaurant staff are needing to know the contents of their customers dish of choice. Nut and egg allergy sufferers require meticulously prepared meals.

Dietary restrictions means consumers are becoming more educated into their choice of restaurant. Asking about cooking methods there is a need to know in detail if a dishes has in any way come into contact with peanuts, for example, during any stage of it's production and service. One reused utensil is sufficient to warrant a trip to the hospital. 

Now on menus, in addition to indicated vegetarian dishes, are the heart smart options and lite options. The Chefs are clearly talented and busy. When trying to balance a menu with this trend, plus expressing modern cooking style, there is a lot of planning and considerations. Healthy salad and vegetable options are becoming widely experimented with and are no longer considered the simple side dish. Returning to cookery books and ingredients at source for inspiration, the nuts and bolts of this trend, are alarming. Detailed nutritional information is readily available and in much more depth than ten years ago.

There is a great difference between a really healthy and slightly lighter meal. Nutritionally aware customers can calculate calorie content, may follow the GI trends and if regular eaters of ‘lite products' at home can taste a low fat, low salt, low sugar sauce a mile away. The challenge for chefs is to make their fresh and alternative healthy options taste good and still be truly healthy.

Whilst ingredient knowledge has increased, the cooking basics however, haven't changed. The rules are still the same: grilled rather than fried, lean meat and fish, more fruit and vegetables, and less butter and cream. Readily available resources are dishes inspired by the Mediterranean and Japanese diets. Whilst very different, the two cuisines are known for use of varied produce, good oils and fish. Each country of origin boasts low levels of heart disease, a trend worth aspiring to.

SpotLight is the weekly column exclusively written for 4Hoteliers.com by Sarah Muxlow, it is highlighting the challenges and issues which the global hospitality is facing today.

Sarah is writing for hotel and restaurant owners, hotel chain managers, producers/growers/sellers of food & beverage, restaurant associations, governing bodies and hotel schools. She is looking at the problems they face...competition, trends of branding, staff shortages, unskilled staff, turning out students who are looking for good in-house management training schemes with hotel chains, what makes a good quality training course at a hotel school and more... 

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