Smart Menu Options For Your Audience
By Chef Martin Lopez
One of my roles as both an ambassador for the National Pork Board and a Culinary Instructor for the St Louis Community College is to educate chefs on not just good cooking, but smart cooking, sometimes called “smart menu options”. What is a smart menu? Logically speaking, it’s the opposite of a “dumb” menu. This doesn’t strictly refer to food that is unhealthy; it can also describe menus that are impractical, feature food that could easily be made better for you, or food served in proportions that can only be described as out of control.
Certainly, “smart meals” can be a buzz phrase if you want it to be, but the true meaning is much deeper and has very serious implications for all of us. Let’s dig in to what a smart menu can mean for your kitchen.
MEAL PROPORTIONS ARE CRITICAL
Food is a thing to power your body, to be enjoyed socially, and to share with fellow cultures. But when food becomes an indulgence, like most things, it can be extremely harmful. As chefs who constantly must answer questions like, “How many mouths are we feeding tonight?”, and “What’s on the desert menu?”, it’s tempting to fill our trays with an abundance of things that you might say are cheap and easy.
But we need to be held accountable. Food preppers have a responsibility in aiding their communities, and our community here is no different. The most recent census data in our country shows that 93.3 million adults in the US are considered obese, meaning we are inching closer to half of all adults being obese in this country. That is an outrageous statistic, and it complicates many things that impact all of us, such as our healthcare costs and life expectancy.
A smart menu, then, is one that largely promotes an average caloric intake. Do not worry, I still call on you all to create tasty treats with dense ingredients and rich flavors, but it is wholly unnecessary to fill up your restaurant, catering, or personal menus with far too many illogical proportions.
Want to do your part to help? Try pre-plating your event meals, or rethinking options high in carbs and fats. In the end, people can only choose from the options they are given.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FARM TO TABLE
“Farm to Table” as a concept simply means ordering your ingredients from a local store or market. What is the benefit? This benefits the consumer who avoids too many preservatives and unnecessary genetically modified foods (GMOs), it helps your local economy by investing money towards greater food options right in your backyard, and it dramatically cuts down on shipping costs that leave large carbon footprints that harm our environment. If and when you have the option, Farm to Table is always the smart menu option over anything else. Try checking out local markets and seeing with what you can cook there. (This is also a great pro tip that smart chefs use to expand their menus.) One can find useful Farm to Table websites online, such as KnowWhereYourFoodComesFrom.com, which list when and where all major food markets take place in every state, including here in our home of Missouri. You probably haven’t been to most of them!
SEASONAL MENU OPTIONS ARE BETTER
Go out and pick two fresh strawberries. Eat one right now, then freeze the other one and eat it in four months. Obviously, nobody needs to really do this in order to guess which strawberry tastes better. But this is a reminder to everyone out there that just because a certain meal is desirable year round doesn’t mean you shouldn’t develop your menus seasonally. Fresh food always tastes better. And it’s cheaper than ordering stock out of season.
Want to cultivate a smart menu? Learn your spring, summer, fall and winter seasons well, and research what is most available where you live during that time. Not only is it financially smarter to cook this way, but it’s the type of cooking practice on which professionals build their reputations. Plus, it helps promote Farm to Table cooking. It’s just smarter.
SCULPT YOUR MENU WITH PRODUCE
Generally speaking, produce is low in calories and high in health benefits. It’s the reason why your parents likely wanted you to eat your vegetables all the time. But as professionals, we have the power to make those vegetables taste delicious! If you have a popular item on a menu, consider pairing it with steamed produce. Sneak in fruit where there might not have been. If texture is important to a meal, produce is one of the best places to begin experimenting. There are so many ways to make your meal smarter using different produce year round, and it’s far too lazy to not utilize them – given how many foods are out there.
DRILL THESE LESSONS INTO YOUNG PEOPLE
Everybody knows they should brush their teeth because they were taught at a young age, usually in the mirror with a parent showing them how to do it. Imagine if we taught our children not just to “eat healthy”, but actually showed them by example – the same way we do everything else?
Get your kids excited about food early on by giving them cooking books for children, letting them watch you cook, and enrolling them in cooking classes aimed at training the next generation of smart eaters out there. Cooking and thinking about food is a skill no different than swimming or singing in a choir, and like anything else, learning when you are young is much easier than as an adult. Interested, but don’t know where to start? KitchenClubKids.com is a great hub for the best cooking books and cooking lessons for your young loved ones.
It may surprise you to learn that a smart menu isn’t one that is lacking sweet flavors and stuffed with broccoli; eating smart means so much more, from how you plate your food to when you learn how to cook. As a midwestern state, we can do far greater things with our cooking palettes than we traditionally have been.
It all begins in your kitchen.
Happy Holidays and think and cook smart!
Chef Martin Lopez
For Missouri Meeting & Events Magazine