Ask a Chef: Creating a Healthier Prepared Food Section
Tim Downey is head chef at Oxnard, Calif.-based Primal Nutrition LLC, a better-for-you (BFY) brand of condiments, sauces and dressings developed according to the idea that when you clean up your diet, it’s the sauces and extras that can make an otherwise bland meal exciting. Each new year brings the inevitable goal to eat better, and Downey has ideas for serving up 2020 resolutions with plenty of nutrition, variety, ingredient transparency and great taste.
Progressive Grocer: How would you advise grocery store chefs to make some small but significant steps toward helping customers make BFY food choices?
Ted Downey: Assessing cooking oils is a great place to start. Consider using oils with monounsaturated fats such as avocado and olive oil as much as possible, rather than using industrially processed seed oils. For food preparation, consider frying with avocado oil, or follow the trend of home cooks and use an air fryer to impart the crackly texture of deep-fried foods without heavy oils.
It’s also good to avoid using prepared sauces that contain added sugars and additives. When making sauces, consider using real-food ingredients such as fresh citrus or orange juice to sweeten, apple cider or balsamic vinegar to add acid and tang, and natural flavor enhancers like spices and herbs instead of extra salt.
As more people look for lower-carb offerings, seek ways to replace grains with vegetables. For example, riced cauliflower, broccoli and sweet potatoes provide nutritious and filling substitutes for grains like rice or pasta.
Also, consider offering dairy-free options for those with dairy sensitivities. In hot-bar dishes like lasagna, casseroles or breakfast frittatas, chefs can add creaminess and savory-salty taste with homemade cashew cheese, or even homemade vegan cheese made with ground hemp seeds, a bit of sea salt and nutritional yeast.
PG: So much of eating better comes down to careful planning. How can prepared food programs help busy people stay on the BFY path?
TD: Busy consumers appreciate grab-and-go options they can either eat straight out of the package for a “brown bag” lunch at work, or take home as a way to get dinner on the table with minimal prep. Pre-made salads are especially popular with consumers, and grocers can enhance their nutritional value with high-quality ingredients, including real-food toppings such as hard-boiled eggs, lean grilled proteins, raw veggies, pickled veggies, nuts and seeds. These toppings add plenty of variety and flavor, and are better alternatives to deep-fried Asian crunchies, traditional croutons and heavily processed meat products like bacon bits.
Other lunch-ready options can include soups and stews made with high-quality ingredients, collard or lettuce wraps filled with veggies and protein, and bowls filled with cauliflower rice, grilled or roasted veggies, premium protein options like grilled salmon and sliced steak, and sauces on the side made with real-food ingredients.
Don’t forget lunch for the kids. Try bento box-style packs filled with nitrate-free meats, diced cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, fruits, sliced carrots, cucumbers and broccoli, and BFY dips and dressings like Primal Kitchen Ranch. Add treats like grain-free crackers, 60% dark chocolate, or fruit leathers made with real fruit and no additives or dyes.
Busy consumers are drawn to pre-cooked, heat-and-serve dinners. Some on-trend convenient options include cauliflower-crust pizza topped with veggies, nitrate-free pepperoni and whole-milk mozzarella. Try combinations of cooked meat, veggies, and mashed or roasted sweet or regular potatoes. Zoodles, or veggie noodles, are great topped with store-made meatballs. Consider using almond flour instead of bread in the meat mixture, and finish with high-quality marinara or alfredo sauce.
PG: What is your advice for upgrading typical deli department fare with a few easy, unexpected steps?
TD: An easy, everyday idea is to upgrade your protein-based salads like tuna, chicken and egg salad. Use avocado-oil-based mayo in the dressing for these salads, and advertise that you’ve done so.
Consider extending the hours of breakfast offerings at the deli or hot-food bar, and offer plenty of protein options such as omelets, frittatas and egg cups. Add a grain-free granola option to the bar alongside the regular granola, fruit and yogurt. You can also provide healthy add-ins at your coffee bar, like plain and flavored collagen products, and medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) oil.
Finally, add variety by building around food themes or highlighting ethnic cuisine options at the deli or salad bar. For example, ride the popular wave of Taco Tuesday by setting up a build-your-own taco bar. Offer corn and flour tortillas and shells, as well as a grain-free option. Make a robust taco salad setup that includes a variety of chopped greens, crisp veggies like sliced bell peppers, julienned jicama, grilled onions and zucchini. Don’t forget roasted chiles and pickled jalapeños. Offer upgraded protein choices like grilled cilantro-lime steak or chicken, spicy pulled pork or carnitas.