Dietary Needs and Food Substitutions

Article by Chef Martin

Avocados are first on my list when it comes to healthy eating choices, and I often use them as substitutions based on my Latino, Hispanic cooking. However, there are many other ways we can get a strong, smart start to a healthy eating lifestyle this summer. A beloved vegetable of Mexican fare, the butter pear, or “avocado” as we call it, provides up to 110 mcg of folate per cup, which accounts for approximately 28% of our daily needs. Not only are avocados one of the best foods with folic acid, but they’re an excellent source of fatty acids, vitamin K, and dietary fiber. Adding them to sandwiches or salads makes for an extra-healthy treat!

With more people choosing to abstain from certain foods for ethical reasons (such as vegans and vegetarians) or for health reasons (such as diabetes, allergies, heart disease, etc.), could catering to special diets be worth it for you?

We tend to think of food as either sustenance or the center of social gatherings, but good eats are also synonymous with professional opportunity. In an office setting, a great meal or snack can make employees more productive and make potential deal partners more amenable. Good food promotes alertness, delivers energy, and makes people happy, but only if they can eat it. Some 317 million Americans live with dietary restrictions and allergens and that can make dishing out office meals a risky prospect, but there are steps you can take to make mealtime in the workplace a more pleasant production.

If you do decide to cater to special dietary requests, how can you do it easily without changing your entire menu and business and without driving away folks who still want their chicken wings and mozzarella sticks? How do you strike a healthy business balance to ensure you’re adding to your clientele and not trading one set of patrons for another?

For example, some people decide what to eat based on cultural and health concerns or because of religious beliefs. Whatever the reason for their choices, you need to cater with care to meet everyone’s needs. Here are the big four special need food types:

Vegetarian: Vegetarians avoid all types of meat, including beef, poultry, fish, pork and other types of seafood. Vegetarian catering should be thoughtful and intentionally meat-free.

Vegan: Vegan catering should follow vegetarian guidelines while also avoiding any animal by-products, such as eggs, dairy and honey.

Dairy-free: People who are dairy-free enjoy a diet without most dairy products. They may, however, enjoy alternative dairy products such as almond milk or soy cheese.

Gluten-free: Being gluten-free has become a bit of a health fad, but one in 133 Americans suffer from celiac disease, and these clients don’t have the choice to eat foods containing gluten. Celiac disease is a painful gastrointestinal disorder that makes it very difficult if not impossible for them to digest gluten. Gluten-free catering excludes bread, pasta, and even some spice mixes and salad dressings.

Of course, there are also other possible dietary restrictions that might be in play. You may have a client who prefers to eat a high-protein diet, or someone who needs to eat low-sodium foods. How does one thoughtfully order for the office given the potential for varying needs? How can we put together a diverse office-catering menu? The answer lies in catering. Catering professionals are used to delivering diverse meals while ensuring the food is delicious. They can also combine dietary restrictions so that a few dishes will serve multiple purposes. For example, Indian food is often gluten-free and vegetarian, and veggie-rich pasta is practically universally pleasing.

With catering you don’t have to sacrifice one set of clients for the other. Catering to vegan, diabetic, and other health-conscious diets is just like any other kind of catering. Once you have your go-to recipes and the substitutions that you like to use, this type of cooking quickly becomes second nature. For instance, vegetables are naturally low in sodium (salt) and solid fats. If you prepare and serve vegetables without adding too much salt or solid fats like butter, stick margarine, cream sauces or regular, full-fat cheese, you’ve got an excellent start on some low sodium, low fat food options. Here’s how:

•  Use herbs or no-salt spice mixes instead of salt, butter, or stick margarine to season vegetable dishes.
• Offer more fresh vegetables instead of breaded and fried vegetables, including fried white potatoes.
• Or, instead of using white rice, get trendy and offer wild rice, brown rice or quinoa.

While the number of health-conscious patrons is growing, for the time being they are still in the minority. I blame this on a lack of awareness or simply because their taste buds are accustomed to salty, fatty, unhealthy food. Unhealthy eating is not an easy habit to break. Even when their diet contributes
to their illness, sick people may still prefer the types of foods to which they have been accustomed. Other barriers that may prevent caterers from venturing into healthier food options include the cost for healthier, higher quality ingredients, which can discourage both caterers and customers. The trick is to find
locally sourced, seasonal food and to comparison-shop food distributors. In other words, if fresh greens are out of season and incredibly expensive in the fall and winter, offer some nice squash and root vegetables instead. In this way, you’ll often be able to offer a higher quality product for less.

Gluten-free, low-sodium, low-fat, sugar- and dairy-free options can easily be incorporated into any menu. As a professional Chef and lead for the food industry, I also believe training kitchen staff in healthy cooking styles is critical since, in addition to the ingredients, the way we prepare food contributes to the quality and the healthiness of the meal.

So, how do you begin to offer specialized food as a caterer? How can you make it a seamless part of what you offer without a lot of extra expense and trouble that can spell chaos in your kitchen? Begin by exploring specific ways you can offer special items to your clients, including where to find recipes. Communicate with your Chef to come up with some smart, healthy alternatives for easy ingredient substitutions.

Top 10 Ingredient Substitutions I Find Easy to Achieve In Any Kitchen

1. Instead of White Potatoes, Try Sweet Potatoes. Baked, roasted, or mashed, sweet potatoes offer all the comfort- food satisfaction of white potatoes, but with much more nutrition. One medium sweet potato delivers more than a day’s worth of vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene) plus 57 percent more fiber and 55 percent more vitamin C than white potatoes. Rich and moist, they taste great without loads of butter or sour cream.
2. Instead of Croutons, Try Walnuts. Like croutons, walnuts add heft and crunch to salads, but thanks to their protein, fiber and fat, they also add long-lasting energy. Unique among nuts for their high amount of alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fat that protects against heart disease, walnuts also contain melatonin, which helps regulate sleep- -and they’re a good source of phytosterols, which help lower cholesterol levels. Toast them lightly for added crispness.
3. Instead of Mayonnaise, Try Avocado. Looking for something rich and creamy to spread on a sandwich? Try an avocado. Per tablespoon, this mild, buttery fruit has about half the fat and calories of low-fat mayonnaise. The luxurious texture of avocados comes from heart-friendly monounsaturated fat. As a bonus, you also get healthy amounts of fiber, folate, niacin, and vitamins B6 and K. Avocado pairs particularly well with turkey and the all-famous veggie wrap.
4. Instead of Button Mushrooms, Try Shiitakes. Mushrooms provide more nutrients than they generally get credit for, but shiitakes stand out for their combination of great flavor and health benefits. Extensively studied in Asia, shiitakes contain lentinan, a type of carbohydrate that stimulates your immune system, helping to protect against (and fight) cancer. Another compound in shiitakes, eritadenine, lowers cholesterol. Shiitakes’ savory taste works well in dishes like stir-fries, sauces and gravies. Either discard the tough and fibrous stems, or save them to add an earthy, smoky flavor to a broth.
5. Instead of Milk Chocolate, Try Dark Chocolate. Dark chocolate gets its signature bitter flavor from flavonoids, heart-protecting antioxidants that milk chocolate contains in short supply (white chocolate has none). Studies have shown that including small amounts of dark chocolate in your diet can boost your health–like helping to lower blood pressure–so go ahead and indulge a little in this rich-tasting treat. When buying a bar, be aware that most manufacturers don’t list flavonoid contents on their labels, but cocoa percentage provides a clue. The higher the cocoa content in chocolate the better. Try a dark chocolate that contains 70 percent or more cocoa.
6. Instead of Iceberg Lettuce, Try Romaine Lettuce. You know iceberg lettuce is no nutritional star, but you love its crunch in salads, sandwiches and tacos. Next time you shop, reach for romaine lettuce instead. It has the same crisp texture as iceberg, but with more than three times the folate and seven times the vitamin A, as well as more potassium and vitamins C and K. Like other leafy greens, romaine is rich in carotenoids, which studies show may inhibit the growth of certain cancers.
7. Instead of Cream Cheese, Try Almond Butter. With more fiber, calcium, vitamin E and magnesium (not to mention flavor), almond butter makes a great alternative to cream cheese on bagels or breads. And studies show that protein in a meal makes you feel more full, so you eat less. You’ll also be doing your heart a favor by replacing the high level of saturated fat in cream cheese with the mostly monounsaturated fat in almond butter. For a change of pace, try the crunchy version of this spread. It’s delicious!
8. Instead of All-Purpose Flour, Try Whole-Wheat Flour. You can reduce your risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and weight gain by eating more whole grains. A good rule of thumb is to make at least half of your grain intake whole grain. For baking, keep a container of whole-wheat flour next to your all-purpose flour and use equal amounts of each. You’ll get almost three times the fiber, as well as important antioxidants. Try the swap and see what you think. If you don’t like the results, consider white whole-wheat flour, which offers the same benefits but is made from a milder-tasting variety of wheat.
9. Instead of Vegetable Oil, Try Canola Oil. Common vegetable oils like corn, safflower and sunflower are high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats. While our good health depends on these fats, Americans tend to get too much of them, which can interfere with our bodies’ ability to use omega-3 fats and lead to problems with inflammation. Instead, choose canola oil. It contains more omega-3s than other common cooking oils. Like olive oil, canola is high in cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fats. In addition, its neutral flavor and 400-degree smoke point make it suited for both baking and sautéing and frying.

10. Instead of Sour Cream, Try Yogurt. Plain whole-milk yogurt may sound like an indulgence, but compared with sour cream, it’s downright spartan. Cup for cup, wholemilk yogurt has less than half the calories and one-third the saturated fat of reduced-fat sour cream, yet it boasts 16 percent more calcium. Use it in baked goods, dips, and as a garnish instead of sour cream. Stick with whole-milk versus low-fat or fat-free yogurt so you won’t feel like you’re sacrificing flavor for health, just don’t go overboard (think teaspoon, not ladle).

So, start this summer with smart substitutions for you and your family. If you are an event planner or a food professional, help promote and give easy access to good healthy eating choices!

Eat Healthy, Be Happy!

To learn more about Chef Martin Lopez, visit his website at

About the author

Joe Clote

Joseph W. Clote is owner of Publishing Concepts, LLC a communications and marketing firm based in Saint Louis, Missouri. Mr. Clote is Group Publisher of MeetMed™ and Missouri Meetings & Events™ (MM&E) magazine, a quarterly publication read by thousands of meeting and event professionals, and producer of the St. Louis and Kansas City trade shows under the MM&E name. Mr. Clote has extensive sales and marketing expertise in the travel, tourism, fine art, insurance, and software development industries.