Healthifying the Foodservice Industry

While the concept of healthy eating may not be a new one, the way many foodservice operators are designing and equipping their facilities to meet the needs of the day is.

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Consumers have long said they think healthy eating is important and choose restaurants, in part, based on healthy menu options available. But as most foodservice industry experts are quick to point out consumers don't always follow through on healthy eating plans when they get there. Still, thanks to a confluence of factors, healthy eating is now becoming more prevalent across all foodservice segments. As a result, this still-evolving trend has operators adapting their menus, operations, equipment and kitchen designs to accommodate healthier foods while producing a product that tastes good.

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The foodservice industry features various definitions of healthy: low-fat, low-carb, gluten free, organic, local, sustainable, foods with minimal processing and more wholesome or natural ingredients. Healthier fats like olive oil, whole grains and leaner proteins also fall into that group. Lower sodium and low-or no-sugar options are also becoming more important amidst rising obesity and childhood obesity.

And, with menu labeling laws coming down the pike at the state level and possibly federal level, restaurants and other operators who manage to stay ahead of the curve by calculating the nutritional information of their food and posting it somewhere — be it in-store or online — may not only avoid legal pitfalls, they'll keep up with consumer demand and preference, too.

That said, there are many different consequences a healthier menu can have on a kitchen including design, equipment and supplies usage; sourcing and purchasing of ingredients; production; training and other operations. For example, increasing the use of fresh produce may result in more onsite food prep, so extra work tables and refrigerators are a must. As a result of using more fresh produce, vegetable washers are growing in popularity. And, in the wake of a growing childhood obesity epidemic and subsequent initiatives in school nutrition, many operators have eliminated certain pieces of equipment entirely. Others have put more emphasis on equipment like combi ovens and wood-burning ovens to develop flavor through slow-roasting without the extra fat that comes with frying and sautéing.

Maintaining a healthier menu or concept may also involve a need to "go green" in order to satisfy the same consumer base. Here, we break down those segments for a closer look at how healthy eating lifestyles have impacted the foodservice industry.

College/University Healthfulness

Menu-wise, healthier eating at this non-commercial level is all about fresh ingredients, such as foods with higher fiber content, unique grains like quinoa and wheatberries, and interesting beans like aduki used in salads as well as "superfoods" like kale, points out Georgie Shockey, principal of Ruck-Shockey Associates.

Also, finding a balance in the operation between offering the standard college fare, such as hamburgers and fries, with healthier options is becoming a goal. "Resetting the footprint of a servery space will likely evolve over the years," Shockey says. "If, in the past, 30 percent of the space was dedicated to less healthy choices, today you may only gear that at 20 percent. Again, it really depends on the unique characteristics of the student and college/university population."

In addition to healthier menu items, locally sourced ingredients and nutritional labeling are two key factors shaping foodservice operations among colleges and universities. As these institutions continue to expand the volume of healthier menu items they may look to slightly modify their equipment packages. For example, they may choose to place a greater emphasis on work tables, refrigerated prep tables and reach-in refrigeration (both upright and undercounter) while going with a smaller fryer or hot food holding equipment.

Healthy Schools Campaigns

With childhood obesity as an ongoing dilemma and First Lady Michelle Obama's fight against it continuing to pick up speed, there have been many changes in food selection and kitchen layout at the K-12 level, though that's been a slow progression over the past couple years, says Eric Norman, vice president of MVP Services.

Still, equipment selection has changed a bit as a result. For example, in some schools have turned to combi ovens to cook chicken fingers. The combis first steam the chicken fingers, helping retain their moisture, and then go into dry, hot-air convection mode to crisp up the outside for a texture similar to a fried nugget, but without the fat.

Karen Malody, principal of Culinary Options, said she was inspired by a wellness conference she attended that brought together various industry organizations, including FCSI, SFM, NACUFS and AHFM, interested in working together to encourage healthier eating and kitchens across multiple operator segments. The FCSI-sponsored Leeding the Way in Wellness conference, which took place earlier this year, pointed out several large grants that have been given to school districts to encourage healthier eating, and those grants have extended to even c-store operators as well, Malody says.

"Part of one large grant included giving money to 30 c-store operators in a certain area to start offering more healthy food, like fruits and vegetables, because kids were frequenting these stores so much. The old days of corn dogs are being challenged. Everyone I know who works in the K-12 segment is very committed to changing dietary menu structures within the school system."

That includes learning how to better build flavor into food using herbs, spices and a little heat rather than extra oils and added fat. Kids' menus are changing not just in schools but also at many restaurants and chains around the country, too, Malody notes. That means healthier dips with veggies, fruit bites and foods with more whole grains.

Restaurants and Chains Changes

Fast-casual restaurants were the first to make changes to their equipment and operations to accommodate some new, healthy menu items, but even quick-serves have started to research those possibilities, says Darren Tristano, Technomic executive vice president. "The fast-casual segment has an advantage because food is made-to-order and tends to be more positioned as fresh compared to quick-service where you can't make food to order and be very quick, so that's why we've always seen more packaged salads and things of that nature. I think we will continue to see restricted calories on menus and alternatives and substitutions, even though right now not a lot of restaurants are focusing on healthy eating as a core."

Still, he says, there have been a handful of concepts with a more complete health focus. Seasons 52, Tristano points out, was one of the first fast-casual concepts to focus entirely on healthy eating through a reduction in portion sizes. "They really focus on healthy foods with good taste and flavor through preparation," Tristano says. Similarly, Au Bon Pain has introduced a line of smaller mini-meals or snacks like hummus and pita and veggies with dips that can substitute for lighter lunches.

And then there's Palo Alto, Calif.-based LYFE Kitchen, a new concept by restaurateur Mike Roberts, former global president and chief operating officer at McDonald's, Mike Donahue, former chief communications officer for McDonald's and Steve Sidwell, CEO of Devante Capital in partnership with celebrity chefs Art Smith (who also recently lost more than 50 pounds) and Tal Ronnen.

LYFE Kitchen plans to feature a menu full of wholesome dishes combining fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and Mediterranean inspirations.

In Chicago, budding entrepreneur Zach Horwitz recently opened FÜL, a healthy eating and lifestyle concept he hopes to build into a chain someday. For the moment, though, the original restaurant occupies space in one of Chicago's residential neighborhoods where, Horwitz says, there aren't a lot of options for a quick-serve meal that's also light and super healthy enough to be frequented more than just once every two weeks or a month.

Sourcing local food is a big part of the healthy lifestyle focus for FÜL, and it shows that as this locavore movement continues to take shape, there is a bit of a crossover into healthy eating venues. The logistics for this type of purchasing and sourcing aren't easy, but they can be done. Horwitz says he sources from a few different, smaller distributors in the area with the means to pick up foods fresh from Illinois and other Midwestern farms. Since these distributors don't deliver daily, he'll rotate between the three to make sure his needs are covered. And, this system helps him not only get fresher, daily deliveries, but also cut down on cold storage needs to save energy. A combination of a few reach-in coolers, plenty of under-counter refrigeration and a refrigerated prep table is enough to handle everything.

FÜL has been able to cut down on waste as a result of sourcing local foods. "When you source organic and local farm foods, the food is so fresh and ready-to-use you don't have to pick through old lettuce and other vegetables that have been trucked for days." In the latter case, that's how more food gets tossed rather than used. Horwitz capitalizes on this waste reduction with recycling as well as a pre- and post-consumer composting program thanks to regular pickups by a local composting facility and a strong, seal-tight bin they provide. That way, the biodegradable disposables he uses can be disposed of the proper way, rather than just thrown in the trash.

These intersections of local/sustainable and green/energy-saving with healthier eating, a fresher food focus and a more active, outdoorsy lifestyle might just be the triggers that continue to shape not just food and equipment selections, but also operations and concept development as a whole. And that applies to all segments of the foodservice industry, from the consumer-commercial level, to the college/university sector and far beyond.

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