As more and more pizza chains make their homes on campus, they should be aware of new, more healthful practices in the university dining sector.
Stealth health is probably one of the most popular menu strategies at colleges and universities. Some call it "sneaking" healthy foods into meals but I prefer to feature healthier, flavor-driven menu options without explicitly labeling them for their nutritional benefits. For example, cutting a pizza into 10 pieces instead of less promotes less consumption. Brushing the crust with olive oil is a way to inject some last-minute health attributes – and flavor.
What's the payoff? We have some of the highest meal plan retention rates and customer satisfaction ratings in the university dining segment. Our business has grown over 10 percent annually for the past three years. The journey of offering healthy and flavorful food choices has just begun. In the end, successful healthy menu innovation is about increasing, not decreasing, customer choices.
Let's back up and identify the need for such a strategy. Lately, sodium has become a bad word as American health experts are telling us we daily consume 50 percent more than recommended intake of 2200 mg of sodium. Let's be honest: we are facing an epidemic of diet-linked adverse health conditions and chronic diseases, from obesity and type 2 diabetes to heart disease and various cancers. Long-term studies by the Harvard School of Public Health have concluded that an optimally nutritious diet combined with regular exercise and not smoking can prevent 80 percent of heart disease, for instance. It is vital to our nation's public health that the foodservice industry accelerates current efforts to expand healthy menu choices and that includes university dining.
Today more than ever, many students are looking to their campus dining locations for food choices that are at once healthy and delicious. Our chefs and staff thus must embrace opportunities to create a new generation of healthy and appealing every day foods.
We have noticed that college students' food choices are skewing healthier. Prime rib and pasta with creamy Alfredo sauce are less popular. These dishes are being replaced by sushi, tapas, kefta (grilled Middle Eastern meat dish) or anything stir-fried. In fact, during the move-in at UMass last fall, very few new students were choosing prime rib except the baby boomer parents, mostly the males. Our customers want quality, not quantity.
With these health imperatives in mind, many of us have taken upon the challenge and have initiated innovative menu strategies for campus dining.
Our goal is to deliver delicious and tasty food with healthy options to our customers in the most sustainable and environmental conscious manner. Here are some things that have proven successful at UMass, can help save you money and are good for customers as well:
- Reduce the portion sizes of everything we serve. For example, chicken, fish, beef and pork are served in 3 oz. portions for lunch, 4 oz. for dinner. Make the desserts fruit-based and in half-sized portions. We cut pizza into 10 pieces rather than eight or six. A sheet of brownies now yields 144 pieces instead of 72 and strawberry shortcake now comes with a smaller "biscuit" and more fruit.
- Replace salt and sodium with other spices, even sea salt. We reduced 25 percent of the sodium from our recipes and flavor our food with spices, herbs and sea salt. We also work with our manufacturers to encourage them to reduce the sodium in some of the processed food items including soup.
- Focus on fruits and vegetables first, with the goal of doubling students' consumption of produce to promote good health. Make fruits and vegetables the center of the plate and use them when in season, if possible and buy local.
- Leverage the flavors of world cuisines from the Mediterranean, Latin America, Asia and Africa. These cuisines are rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plant oils, nuts and legumes and contain less red meat.
- Use only healthy oils such as canola and olive oil for cooking. Everyone should be trans-fat-free now. We always brush our pizza dough with olive oil before cooking and it makes the finished product tastier.
- Share nutrition information with customers as openly as possible, whether it is on line or by way of a menu board. The more information you provide to your customers, the more loyal they will be to you.
- Use local ingredients as much as possible. Not only does this help to reduce the carbon foot print, it means fresher food that is healthier and better for you.
Ken Toong has been the executive director of UMass Dining at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, for the past 11 years. UMass Dining Services is the third largest campus dining operation in the country with 14,500 students on the meal plan and annual revenue of 60 million. Under his leadership, Toong has transformed the UMass Dining Services into one of the most talked about foodservice programs in the nation. Toong also is the founder and chairperson of the Tastes of the World Chef Culinary Conference for college culinary professionals, now in its 16th consecutive year.
Ken Toong is the executive director of UMass Dining at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. UMass, the third largest campus dining operation in the country with annual revenue of 60 million.