Cheers to More Produce

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the Menu

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the MenuAs a consultant‭, ‬I’ve been blessed with many wonderful clients and projects the past three years‭. ‬But I recently worked on a project that made me a‭ ‬bit crazy‭.‬

The client wanted me to take recipes created by chefs and make them‭ ‬“consumer-friendly‭.‬”‭ ‬They were taking recipes from a campus dining operation‭, ‬including student dining and campus catering‭, ‬and creating a cookbook‭ ‬for students‭.

At first glance‭, ‬this seemed like a perfect project for me‭, ‬but the more I got into it‭, ‬the worse it became‭. ‬Why‭? ‬The recipes used so little produce‭.‬

As a recipe writer‭, ‬I strive to use as much produce in all forms as possible‭. ‬The chefs who created these recipes specified putting large portions of meat‭, ‬poultry and seafood on every plate‭, ‬but they were still using produce as a garnish‭, ‬not an integral‭ ‬part of the meal‭.‬

One recipe for eight portions used 1‭ ‬cup of canned peaches‭, ‬providing just 2‭ ‬tablespoons per serving‭. ‬Another recipe called for‭ ‬a half a baby carrot‭, ‬cut lengthwise with tops left on‭, ‬to garnish each plate‭. ‬The photo for this recipe was beautiful‭, ‬but the‭ ‬amount of produce was paltry‭. ‬Clearly the message to‭ ‬“make half your plate fruits and vegetables”‭ ‬has not reached these chefs or had any influence on their work‭.‬

The more recipes I reviewed‭, ‬the angrier I became‭. ‬What was apparent to me is that the chefs working at this campus were classically trained‭. ‬When creating dishes‭, ‬they think protein‭, ‬then starch‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬produce becomes a distant afterthought‭. ‬This needs to change‭.‬

When I worked for The Culinary Institute of America‭, ‬we created a program called‭ ‬“Produce First‭,‬”‭ ‬designed to motivate chefs to think about produce as the starting point for any new menu item‭. ‬Today’s plant-forward eating and cooking trend is starting to impact how some chefs think about menu ideation‭, ‬but there are still too‭ ‬many culinary professionals out there who think meat first‭. ‬They agonize over the cut‭, ‬the cooking technique‭, ‬the pan sauce or‭ ‬reduction to pair with it‭. ‬And then they steam some mixed vegetables and toss them on the plate‭.‬

One interesting conversation I have had with chefs about using more produce is the issue of credit‭, ‬specifically for which forms‭ ‬of produce will they receive credit‭. ‬If the consumer believes fresh is best‭, ‬will a restaurant or foodservice operation get credit from their diners for using processed produce‭?

If you’re working with a chef‭, planning an event for your company or even ordering lunch for your office‭, ‬stay‭ focused‭. ‬Ask for more produce in your recipes‭, ‬meals‭, ‬even your cocktails‭.

These same chefs talked about preparation techniques‭. ‬If they are getting criticized by public health leaders for not offering healthful food‭, ‬but they’ve learned that techniques like deep frying drive sales of items like crispy Brussels sprouts‭, ‬should they stop offering that menu item‭? ‬There’s nothing wrong with deep frying if the oil is an unsaturated vegetable or seed oil‭. ‬The traditional Mediterranean diet‭, ‬heralded for its many proven health-promoting properties‭, ‬is made up of more than 40‭ ‬percent calories from fat‭. ‬Fat quality matters much more than fat quantity in a healthful diet‭.‬

What else describes the Mediterranean diet‭? ‬It contains abundant amounts of fruits and vegetables‭!‬

OK‭, ‬so back to the issue of‭ ‬“getting credit”‭ ‬for using more produce‭. ‬We need to start training chefs about the power of produce when it comes to creating healthful‭, ‬flavorful recipes‭. ‬And we need to start training home cooks‭, ‬too‭.‬

Mars‭, ‬the makers of Uncle Ben’s rice products‭, ‬did some interesting work in Australia to see if it could move the needle on produce consumption‭. ‬Based on data‭ ‬from a 2014‭ ‬Mars consumer study showing 89‭ ‬percent of shoppers follow the on-pack recipe instructions‭, ‬the company increased the amount and variety of vegetables in its on-pack recipes‭. ‬Retail sales data on the products with the new recipes showed the potential for 13.3‭ ‬million more vegetables servings in 2015‭ ‬in Australia‭. ‬That’s an impressive increase for a single product category‭, ‬like a ready-to-heat-and-eat rice-based meal‭.‬

A day after finishing the cookbook project‭, ‬I received approval for a new project‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬one that is making me very happy‭. ‬I was asked to create 10‭ ‬consumer-friendly recipes for a company introducing a new‭ ‬produce item to retail this spring‭. ‬What’s my strategy‭? ‬I’m using the produce item in new‭, ‬yet familiar ways‭, ‬and I’m incorporating other types of produce to create easy‭, ‬healthful and appealing recipes for busy home cooks‭. ‬At least half of the‭ ‬ingredients for each recipe are produce items‭.‬

Little by little‭, ‬we can increase produce sales and consumption in this country‭. ‬More really does matter‭. ‬But we need partners to do so‭. ‬If you’re working with a chef‭, ‬planning an event for your company or even ordering lunch for your office‭, ‬stay focused‭. ‬Ask for more produce in your recipes‭, ‬meals‭, ‬even your cocktails‭. ‬I can never get enough vegetables in my spicy Bloody Mary at Sunday brunch‭. ‬Cheers to more produce‭!‬

Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North
Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. Learn more about her business at Follow her insights on food and flavor issues on Twitter @AmyMyrdalMiller.