Just Like Mom Used to Make: Why Caterers Are Sneaking Extra Nutrition into Their Food and How They Do It

One of the things I hear moms talk about a lot is the sneaky ways they add extra nutrition to their food – right under the noses of their picky eaters. I’ve heard of everything from grating carrots into marinara sauce to pureeing veggies and adding them to cupcakes – anything to get a little nutrition into the pickiest of eaters.

So, why are caterers sneaking extra nutrition into their food – and how do they do it?

1. They want to please health-conscious clients (and if you haven’t already noticed in your own client list, the number of health-conscious clients as a whole seems to be on the rise).

2. These nutrition boosts are handy when subbing out ingredients when you need to avoid common food allergens or turn a meat-based recipe into a vegetarian dish.

3. These tips and tricks can be quite cost-effective, helping boost your profit margins.

4. Sometimes, it’s just fun to experiment with new things in the kitchen.

So, what are some of the best ways to sneak extra nutrition into your food when you’re catering without sacrificing taste and texture? How can you get creative to meet consumer demand for healthy and special diet (i.e., gluten-free, vegan, low-sugar, etc.) foods?

This list of go-to ingredients and fail-safe tips will get you started.

How Caterers Sneak Extra Nutrition into Their Food

Packed with protein, iron, and fiber, lentils make a substantial impact when you add them to soups, stews, sauces, and even dips (because they puree really well). They also make a great meat substitute. Their size is just right to mimic meat crumbles. They’re inexpensive, and they cook up quickly. If you’re making a stew with ground beef, try subbing out half the ground beef for an equivalent amount of cooked lentils. You’ll remove a good portion of the fat that meat adds to the dish and replace it with lean protein and fiber, making your dish heart healthy. Lentils are great in cold salads, too. Throw some cooked cold lentils, walnuts, and goat cheese on top of a salad for something different.

Recipes to try:
Azifa (Ethiopian green lentil salad)
Lentil Walnut Pate
Lentil Fritter Pitas

Quinoa is considered a superfood because of its high nutrition content. Quinoa has gained notoriety for being high in fiber, iron, copper, thiamin, B6, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, and folate! But wait – there’s more! As if that weren’t enough, it’s also a good source of protein. But not just any protein. Quinoa has the perfect balance of all nine amino acids – a rare find in plant-based food.

A half or a whole cup of cooked quinoa combined with an equal part of cooked lentils make a great meat substitute in many recipes, such as chili. You’d be surprised how the right amount of those little round quinoa grains (although they’re really seeds, as it turns out) in a soup or chili can fool a lot of people into thinking there’s ground beef in their bowl. The mouthfeel of quinoa can be very similar to ground beef crumbles.

One of our favorite ways to create a meatless, beefy-tasting dish is to start by sauteing some onions and garlic. Then, add the cooked quinoa and lentils once the onions are almost translucent. Add vegetarian Worcestershire sauce (if you have Kroger stores in your area, their store brand of Worcestershire sauce is vegan, but otherwise any natural food store should carry vegan versions). Add just a little bit of tomato sauce. This combination adds a beefy flavor to the overall dish.

This article about quinoa from NPR has a lot of good information about quinoa, where it comes from, and great recipes to try at the end.

Grated and pureed vegetables
When it comes to sneaking veggies into things, if you chop anything finely enough, no one will notice the extra carrots or spinach in the marinara sauce, stew, soup, or even hamburger and meatballs! Simply grate or process into a finely chopped pulp or puree in your food processor.

Ingredients that work really well for this include:

  • carrots
  • spinach, kale, and other greens
  • small beans (leave them whole or make them into a paste)
  • red peppers (as they tend to be sweeter)
  • squash (pumpkin and butternut are fabulous)
  • sweet potato
  • zucchini
  • mushrooms (finely chopped, they also make a great meat substitute)

Squash and sweet potato purees seem to be very popular items to add to everything from cupcakes and waffles to meatballs because they either can’t be tasted in a well-seasoned dish or they add a little sweetness. You’ll find lots of recipes for pumpkin smoothies, sweet potato macaroni and cheese, and more.

What all these vegetables have in common is that they usually don’t add a strong flavor of their own to your dishes. If anything, they can add a fresh-tasting sweetness that you can’t achieve with regular refined sugar. Also, just like quinoa, minced or grated veggies can add a chunky texture that mimics the texture of meat sauces.

Recipes to try:
Sweet potato macaroni and cheese
Red beet chocolate cake

Use the peels, too
Something as simple as leaving the skins on fruits and veggies (provided they’re well scrubbed, of course) can add loads of nutritious vitamins, minerals, fiber – and save you some work. Carrots, cucumbers, apples, potatoes of all kinds (including sweet potatoes) … all of these ingredients and more can be served with the skins still on them. Bonus: Leaving the peels on creates less waste, so it’s good for the environment, too.

Recipes to try:
Gourmet mashed potatoes (leave the skins on; mix with sour cream, dill, and garlic)
Apple crisp (choose your favorite recipe – just leave the skins on the apples)

Frozen vegetables
Frozen veggies can be healthier than fresh ones from the store sometimes because they’re frozen at the peak of freshness. Therefore, they retain a lot of their nutrition. On the other hand, vegetables and fruits in the produce section of your local grocery store may have lost some of their nutritious qualities and freshness depending on how long they were in transit from the farm to the store. Frozen vegetables are definitely healthier than most canned vegetables and don’t have the added sodium many brands have. Switching to frozen vegetables for some of your dishes is an easy and cost-effective way to make them more nutritious.

Swap avocado for butter, mayo, and cheese
Vegans and vegetarians often swap out butter, mayo, and cheese for avocado to avoid eating animal products. However, anyone can benefit from replacing some of these fatty, high-cholesterol ingredients with avocado.

Avocados are full of omega-3s and vitamin E, they have the kind of fat that protects your heart from heart disease (the monounsaturated fat), and they have a fraction of the calories of butter and other similar ingredients. Yet, their creamy consistency makes a great substitute for butter, mayo, and cheese.

California Avocados Direct has a great avocado nutritional chart that compares the nutritional makeup of avocados to butter, sour cream, cheddar cheese, and mayonnaise.

So, when you need to offer healthier, lower-cholesterol choices to your clients, check out these instructions for using avocado as a substitute for butter.

Recipes to try:
Vegan chocolate cupcakes with avocado “buttercream” frosting
Chocolate chip cookies with avocado
Bonus: Article about swapping avocado and butter with three recipes

What are some of your favorite sneaky ways to boost nutrition in your food – either at home or for your clients? Please share in the comments!

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