Chefs, RDNs Collaborate in the Restaurant Test Kitchen

September 29, 2015

While great tasting, affordable and convenient food used to satiate the restaurant-goer’s appetite, people today are demanding more. They want high-quality ingredients that fit their lifestyle and meet their dietary needs. What was once chefs in the kitchen laser-focused on flavor and registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) concentrating on cutting calories is now a strong collaboration between chefs and RDNs to create delicious foods that people can feel good about eating.

As a RDN working in research development for a large restaurant company, I’m well aware that if the food we serve doesn’t taste fantastic it won’t stay on our menu. But I’ve also learned that if our food doesn’t meet people’s needs it won’t make it to our menu. I think this can be applied to all health and wellness professionals in that the food we recommend needs to not only be delicious, but nutrient-rich as well.

Insights show that people are focused on eating healthier, with 61 percent of adults trying to eat healthier foods and indicating that “fresh,” “grilled” and “low-sodium” are the top three most important menu descriptors of a healthy meal at restaurants.1 This need has helped increase opportunities between chefs and RDNs, integrating unique areas of expertise to select ingredients and develop recipes that not only taste great, but also are more nutritious.

A quintessential example of this partnership is The Culinary Institute of America Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative (CIA-HMC). This initiative brings together the best, brightest and most influential culinary and nutrition R&D leaders from high-volume foodservice operations (chains, contract operations, campus dining) to collaborate with restaurant leaders, technical experts, companies and suppliers to find practical solutions that expand the availability of menu choices that are nutritious, delicious and meet people’s demand.

The areas of focus for the CIA-HMC are those that foodservice companies can impact most, including sodium reduction, increasing use of fruits and vegetables, improving carbohydrate quality (with an emphasis on whole grains and beverages) and strategic calorie design. Through identifying challenges; sharing information, expertise and successes; and experimenting in Culinary Institute of America kitchens, they have made significant progress. For instance, with insights from collaborative members, Pizza Hut’s chef, RDN and suppliers worked together to create a premium meatball that’s packed with real flavor and simple ingredients rather than artificial flavors and sodium. For more information on this collaborative and the members bringing it to life go to the CIA Healthy Menus website.

The partnership between chef and RDN will only become more important as restaurant menus evolve to meet demands for fresher, healthier and diet-specific (e.g., gluten free, low-sodium, vegetarian) foods. While we each bring different skills and food philosophies to the kitchen, the synergy leads to innovative solutions where people don’t have to choose between health and great taste. As health and wellness professionals, this is a good reminder for our clients that all foods in moderation can fit in a healthy eating plan.

1. Mintel Group, Limited. (July 2015). Healthy Dining Trends U.S., July 2015. Retrieved from Mintel Menu Insights Foodservice Reports database.

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