The A to Z of healthy catering

28 April 2008
The A to Z of healthy catering

With more and more food being consumed outside the home, caterers are in a position of enormous influence when it comes to the health of the nation. Here is a list of factors to consider when creating healthy options for customers. Compiled by Janet Harmer

A is for Antioxidants Antioxidants are essential for combating the damage to our bodies caused by free radicals - produced by smoking, stress and pollution - which can cause major health problems such as cancer, heart disease and arthritis. Menus should offer a wide range of foods rich in antioxidants, including a variety of fruits (The Stroke Association recommends Eat a Rainbow), vegetables, nuts and cereals. Other foods that contain antioxidants are 70% cocoa chocolate, tea and red wine. Particularly good sources of antioxidants are beta-carotene in carrots and lycopene in tomatoes (tomato sauce is an excellent source); red wines made from Pinot Noir grapes, especially those originating in Burgundy, Bordeaux and Chile; and the herb triumvirate of sage, rosemary and thyme.

B is for Bread As part of a balanced diet, bread is a healthy choice. It is a carbohydrate, and carbohydrates should make up about a third of our diet. Wholegrain, wholemeal and brown bread give us energy and contain B vitamins, vitamin E, fibre and a range of minerals. Commercially made white bread also contains vitamins and minerals (for example, it is fortified with calcium), but has less fibre, unless a high-fibre white bread is chosen. With hundreds of different varieties now available, bread can be an interesting and nutritious addition to any menu.

C is for Cost-effective Offering a healthy menu is also a cost-effective method of catering. For example, fruit and vegetables are cheapest when in season and are packed with vitamins and minerals; introduce more oily fish, such as mackerel and sardines - they are cheap and high in omega-3 fats; and bulk out meat stews with vegetables and pulses. Healthy choices need not be expensive ones.

D is for Dietitian The title "dietitian" is protected by the Health Professions Council, whereas the title "nutritionist" is not. All registered dietitians have a university degree or postgraduate qualification, have to adhere to a code of ethics, and maintain professional development. While many dietitians work in hospitals and clinics, advising individuals in need of therapeutic diets, some work in other areas supporting public health, including the catering industry. Most dietitians are also members of their professional body, the British Dietetic Association. A restaurant or catering company seeking nutritional advice from a registered dietician should contact

E is for Eggs Packed full of nutrients - including protein, vitamins A, B, D and E, iron, phosphorus and zinc - eggs are a healthy addition to any menu, especially when combined with vegetables and salads. They are also relatively low in saturated fat and calories, with about 80kcals per medium egg. Poaching, boiling and scrambling are the healthiest cooking methods for eggs.

F is for the Food Standards Agency Set up by the Government to protect the nation's health in relation to food, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is developing a strategy for working with the catering sector to encourage restaurants, hotels, pubs and food service operators to help customers make healthier choices. For the section dedicated to healthy catering on the FSA website, visit

G is for Gluten Gluten is the protein found in many cereals, particularly wheat. People diagnosed with coeliac disease need to avoid all sources of gluten, including wheat, barley, rye and oats. While lots of everyday foods contain gluten, there are many more foods that can be eaten than cannot. The Coeliac Society produces an annual Food and Drink Directory which lists about 11,000 gluten-free foods, from tins of soup to ready meals. For more information, contact

H is for Health claims New rules came into effect on 1 July 2007 relating to health claims on food. Now, any claims about the nutritional and health benefits of a food can be used only if they are based on science. The FSA (see above) has collated a list of claims that will need to be approved in Europe, and in future only claims that have been approved will be able to be used.

I is for food Intolerances Caterers should take food allergies and intolerances seriously, as even the smallest amount of a food that someone is allergic to can cause a severe reaction called anaphylaxis. To avoid this happening in your establishment, always provide accurate information when asked whether a dish - home-made or ready-made - contains a certain ingredient. Never guess the answer. Foods that can cause the most severe allergic reactions include peanuts and other nuts, cereals containing gluten, crabs, lobsters, prawns, mussels, eggs, fish, sesame seeds and soya. The Allergy Catering Manual provides useful advice and is available via the website

J is for Juice Offering a delicious and wide ranging selection of freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juices, packed full of essential vitamins and minerals, is one of the simplest ways that a caterer can provide customers with a healthy option. One portion of juice counts towards the five-a-day target.

K is for Kale Kale is one of the most nutritionally rich vegetables grown in the UK, yet it is greatly underused by chefs. It is packed with beta-carotene, folate and vitamin C. It's also one of the richest vegetable sources of calcium, as well as containing vital minerals such as iron, magnesium and potassium. The most common varieties are curly and red Russian, while cavolo nero (black cabbage) is the most prized - particularly in Italian cookery. With its pronounced taste, kale makes a good partner to other strongly flavoured ingredients such as bacon, garlic, cheese and soy sauce.

L is for Lentils Next to soya beans, lentils have the highest protein content of all vegetables (about 25%). Relatively inexpensive, they are a nutritious means of adding bulk to a filling soup or stew, particularly in the cost sector. The most superior variety - the distinctively flavoured Puy lentil - will boost the nutritional content of a fine-dining dish.

M is for Menu planning In compiling a nutritionally balanced menu, chefs and caterers are advised to consider the Food Standards Agency's Eat Well Plate campaign. This suggests that, for healthy living, diets should consist of one-third fruit and vegetables; one-third carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, rice or potatoes; one-sixth dairy products; and one-sixth proteins (lean meats and fish) and fats (unsaturated where possible). A chef will not want to be tied down to these figures for every dish he or she puts on the menu, but they are worth considering in the overall balance of a menu.

N is for Non-meat eaters Caterers need to know how to provide a nutritionally balanced diet for their non-meat eating customers, both vegetarian and vegan, and also how to offer dishes that will inspire. It is particularly important that non-meat eaters find protein, iron, B vitamins, and selenium (important for a properly functioning immune system) from sources other than meat and fish. For further advice, visit the websites of the Vegetarian Society at and the Vegan Society at

O is for Omega-3 fats The average British person generally does not eat enough omega-3 fats - the healthy group of polyunsaturated fatty acids useful for helping to protect against heart disease. Caterers can help boost the nation's intake by offering more oily fish, including salmon, tuna (not tinned), sardines, pilchards, mackerel and eel; as well as incorporating other sources such as walnuts, rapeseed, soya, flax and linseed oils into dishes.

P is for Pregnancy

Q is for Quality Buying high-quality ingredients generally means buying seasonally, when produce is in peak condition and packed full of minerals, nutrients and trace elements.

R is for Reduce salt Cutting down on salt can significantly reduce the risk of high blood pressure which, in turn, can lead to strokes, heart attacks and heart failure. Caterers can help customers limit their intake of salt to less than 6g per day (children aged 1-3 should eat no more than 2g daily; 4- to 6-year-olds 3g; and 7- to 10-year-olds 5g) by using alternatives such as herbs, spices, lemon and lime juice, onions, vinegars, and tomato paste. Gradually reduce the amount of salt you use over six months to allow customers' taste-buds to get used to the difference. More tips for replacing salt can be found at

S is for Sugar-free foods It is well documented that excess sugar in our diets causes tooth decay and contributes to obesity. Chris Horridge, head chef at the Bath Priory hotel in Bath, believes chefs should help eradicate these problems by using alternatives to sugar in their cooking. "I use xylitol, an alcohol sugar that has a minimum impact on the glycaemic load, gives a fresher flavour and is recommended by dentists because it actually stops tooth decay," he says.

Chefs using sweeteners should be aware that excessive amounts of some sweeteners can cause diarrhoea. Some sweeteners are intensely sweet, so smaller amounts than sugar should be used - always read the instructions. (There will be an article on Bath Priory's nutritional menu in our 22 May issue.)

T is for Time It is wrong for restaurateurs to rush customers away from their table once they have finished eating, as the human body requires time to properly digest food. Getting up and moving around immediately after eating diverts oxygen away from the stomach to other muscles, resulting in a feeling of sluggishness. Turning tables might boost a restaurant's coffers, but is not always good for customers' health.

U is for Unrefined carbohydrates Food made from unrefined carbohydrates, which contain the whole grain including the bran and the germ, will be welcomed by customers who are trying to lose weight or plan to exercise, as the food's slow-release energy ensures they remain satisfied for longer. Examples included wholegrain rice, wholemeal bread, porridge oats and wholewheat pasta.

V is for Venison Free-range and lean, with less fat than skinned chicken, venison is the ideal meat to offer as a healthy option. And because it contains twice the amount of iron of other red meats, it is an ideal choice for women, as more than 90% of British females are deemed to be short of iron.

W is for Water Recent debates on bottled versus tap water have focused on the environmental impact of using bottled water, with regards to packaging, transportation and waste disposal. But which is the healthier option for caterers to provide their customers?

Juliette Kellow, nutritionist for Delicious magazine, says: "Both tap and bottled water are safe to drink, and neither offers superior health benefits. As a result, it would seem our choice of which to drink comes down to taste, convenience and our concerns for the environment.

"Blind taste tests reveal that tap water fares just as well as bottled water and so is a great choice when eating out. The main message, though, still has to be to drink enough water to stay hydrated - regardless of whether it's in a bottle or from the tap."

For the record, the Food Standards Agency claims that all adults in the UK should drink 1.2 litres (6-8 glasses) of water or other fluids per day to stay hydrated.

X is for X-factor foods Include some foods on your menu that are full of essential nutrients and could be said to have the X-factor, such as blueberries, pomegranates, spinach and walnuts.

Y is for Yogurt Yogurt is an excellent means of incorporating healthy bacteria - useful for redressing the balance when too many fatty and sugary foods have been eaten - into the diet. Use "live" or "bio" yogurts containing acidophilus and bifidus. These "good" forms of bacteria are believed to reduce some cancers and heart disease as well as generally improve the immune system.

If using yogurt to replace cream in a savoury dish, add arrowroot or cornflour to stop the mixture from splitting.

Z is for Zinc Zinc is vital in our diets for fighting infections and boosting the immune system. Chefs can provide their customers with a good source of zinc by offering a selection of shellfish, such as oysters, mussels, crab and lobster; lean red meats, including beef and lamb; Parmesan and other hard or crumbly cheeses, such as Cheshire; wholegrain cereals; and pumpkin seeds.

* With thanks to Rachel Cooke, state-registered dietitian at the British Dietetic Association

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