Stealth Healthy Foods: Wholesome Perception, Delicious Reality

Tacos on a plate

When confronted with reports of an obesity epidemic, it’s not surprising to hear people profess a desire to eat better. Healthy food is trendy to talk about but tricky to label on the restaurant menu. That’s where stealth healthy foods come into play.

Many diners think healthy and nutritious means bland. But stealth healthy foods bring bold, flavorful, and good-for-you together in ways so delicious your customers can eat healthier and enjoy every bite.

The idea of stealth healthy eating comes at a time when veg-centric dishes are cropping up on menus as an emerging macro-trend in restaurant dining—where vegetables are taking center stage on the plate.

“It starts with flavor, and it can even be added at the last minute,” says Chef Joel Tanner, CEC, AAC, of Key Impact Sales and Systems. “The idea is to spend more time on the quality of what you add.”

Layers of Flavor

He recommends taking healthy salads and giving them a dash of indulgence, and turning indulgent foods into healthier flavor bombs. By simply adding chopped cilantro, mint, or basil, a lettuce salad takes on a bold, fresh flavor. Try offering lettuce jammers or large butter lettuce leaves as a walking salad option—they are much healthier than wraps or tortillas.

Restaurant menus have been offering salads with blackened chicken, fish, or other proteins forever. But the stealth healthy twist could be that last-minute sprinkle of seasoning, or a splash of house-made vinaigrette that adds some indulgent flavor.

Simple citrus vinaigrettes are easy to prepare, plus they’re fresh and flavorful. Adding no-salt seasonings from Trade East adds layers of flavor and keeps your guests coming back for more.

“Adding your own dressing increases the flavor quotient,” Tanner says. “And the 2-oz. piece of grilled salmon you put on at the last minute increases the value by several dollars.”

In a similar way, Tanner says, the last thing you put on a taco can make it as flavorful as it is healthy. A taco filled with shredded cabbage and grilled mahi-mahi takes on a whole new appeal when dusted with powdered sriracha seasoning or topped with a drizzle of cilantro cream sauce.  Curtido, an El Salvadorean condiment of cabbage, cilantro, and fresh lime makes for a fresh-tasting taco with plenty of crunch.

When it comes to pizza, Tanner suggests a bahn mi pie, starting with a thin layer of sriracha mayo, shredded chicken, pineapple chunks, and a cabbage and carrot slaw mix. Right before serving, sprinkle it with a vinegar-sugar sauce infused with jalapeño pepper slices to amp up the flavor.

“Food trucks are a model for stealth healthy eating,” Tanner says. “They add a lot of last-minute sauces and seasonings that give flavor to pretty simple and quick-to-prepare foods.”

Going Veg-centric

It’s clear that stealth healthy and veg-centric foods are not vegetarian. Gordon Food Service Corporate Consulting Chef Gerry Ludwig, CEC, says cooking vegetables in meat-based broths, adding crumbles of sausage or shavings of prosciutto, and pairing vegetables with smoked fish, anchovies or anchovy paste, and seafood elevate the richness and complexity of dishes. Even though they’re not vegetarian, they still have a robust, healthy halo.

“Starting out with a vegetable, instead of red meat, chicken, or pork, will yield a lighter, healthy perception and often a healthy reality,” Ludwig says.

Plump eggplants, giant portobello mushrooms, and slabs from a head of cauliflower become “steaks” that can be roasted, grilled, charred, or smoked to bring about a unique flavor. Top them with sauce or seasoning and these healthy vegetables can go from a side dish to the center of a stealth healthy meal.

“Based on our external research, our conclusion is that vegetable-centric cuisine will be the next major macro trend that will influence commercial menus for the next decade,” Ludwig says. And that’s where health and stealth collide.

Presentation Matters

So does that make deep-fried Brussels sprouts healthy? Not necessarily. But for customers, even indulgent vegetable offerings carry a healthy appeal. For kitchen operators, there’s a healthy result on the bottom line—vegetables can be lower-cost alternative to protein-based center of the plate options.

And when it comes to stealth health, Tanner understands how much presentation matters. A traditional taco with pork belly and horseradish cream is really delicious, but it’s not going to be perceived as healthy, he says. Can you add one to your diet once in a while? Yes. But the right presentation might make it a crave-worthy favorite.

“It will have a stealth health appeal if you serve it with tomatoes, bibb lettuce, brown rice, black beans, and grilled onions,” Tanner says. “And then menu it as a smaller-sized item served on a 4½-inch taco shell instead of a 6-inch shell.”

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