People always say they want to eat healthier, but as any restaurant or deli manager is well aware, prepared foods explicitly advertised as "healthy" often get snubbed in favor of their more indulgent counterparts. When paying someone else to make their food, customers want to be sure it's going to taste great, and labels such as "low sodium," "lite" or "better-for-you" can arouse immediate suspicion.
"They like to eat stuff that's not always so good for them," said Donna Howell, food-service director for Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Markets. For example, the company's popular line of boxed lunches for the past few years has included a selection of "on the lite side" sandwiches featuring lower-sodium meats on light breads, but boxed-lunch customers still tend to prefer the regular lineup of products - sandwiches filled with a quarter pound of meat or chicken salad, topped with cheese, lettuce and tomato on a selection of five different, regular breads.
"People don't usually come in asking for low sodium," Howell said. "It hasn't been a big thing for the boxed-lunch sales."
But several prepared food departments are seeing new opportunities based on health trends beyond specific diet-related concerns, striking a balance between healthy and indulgent.
At Dorothy Lane, for example, Howell's team has begun offering more prepared foods that incorporate beans, legumes and whole grains. Thanks to awareness raised last year about the health benefits of whole grains, the popularity of whole-wheat pasta salads, multigrain spinach cakes and other foods made with wheat berries, barley, cous cous and whole-grain exotic rices are becoming more popular.
"We tried some of these things years ago, but I think it was ahead of its time back then," she said. "Customers are so much smarter about their eating habits now. They know the health benefits of foods like whole grains and know where to find them in the foods that we offer."
Whole grains took the nation by storm last year in part because they added fiber and other nutrients to foods, and many customers quickly found that they actually liked the new flavors these grains inspired. And, trends that allow customers to have their cake and eat it too frequently have the broadest appeal and the most staying power.
Similarly, if retailers want to encourage customers to sample a store's selection of greens, they might try throwing some grilled meat on them. Adding an upscale flair to the well-rounded meals that quickly became a hit at fast-casual dining chains, the Marketplace CafT department at Giant of Carlisle's new Camp Hill, Pa.-concept store offers salads topped with freshly grilled chicken or steak.
"The Marketplace CafT has some really upscale and wholesome choices for customers to choose," said Beth Holmes, health and wellness manager for Giant, a division of Ahold USA.
"For example, we have a grilled salad department where you can have a made-to-order salad with dark, healthy greens as a base and then add grilled meat or grilled vegetables. It's a really beautiful presentation."
The store also offers customers an organic salad bar in its meal solutions department, and Holmes said that plenty of healthy side dishes were always available for customers hoping to assemble a quick meal at home. Gondolas in the Marketplace CafT, for example, offer products like roasted vegetables as a side, and since the department is adjacent to the store's produce area, fresh pre-cut fruits and vegetables are also nearby.
Convenience, Holmes said, is always a key to success, whatever the latest trend.
"We really put solutions in place that allow families to go into [the department], grab those nutritious components, and go home and prepare them as a quick alternative to a takeout meal that might not have the ingredients controlled in such a healthy manner," she said.
Another solution is to encourage customers to simply eat less of the foods they already love. Portion control is rapidly becoming a new dietary buzzword, and while many shoppers accustomed to super-sized everything may balk when first faced with a "regular"-sized portion, the idea can quickly catch on, according to FreshDirect, the New York City-based Web grocer.
Discussing FreshDirect's new line of 500-calorie "FreshDining" meals, the company's resident nutritionist Melissa Iglesias said, "I want people to be able to eat these foods every single night and feel great, and leave room for a salad or a glass of wine. If people are eating restaurant-sized portions every night from FreshDirect or from anywhere else, most likely there's going to be other health concerns with cholesterol, weight gain, etc. These FreshDining meals are a good foundation that allow people to add something in if they choose to."
Even with a ceiling established for calories and salt, controlled portions have allowed chef Michael Stark to create a wide variety of gourmet dishes, including a vegetable lasagna, an herb Dijon chicken with broccoli florets and red bliss potatoes, and a Provental tilapia with vegetable ratatouille and saffron rice.
"Of course, we're going to have customers who think, 'Well, I could have used a little more food,' but once you start with portion control and put a focus on that, customers make a shift," Stark said. "In our feedback from the customers, everybody has said that they love the controlled portions, and say that they are really happy that we are helping them eat balanced meals. That this is exactly what they wanted."
Stark added that sales had greatly exceeded expectations since the line's launch in mid-December 2005, and that the re-order rate has also been very high.
The convenience aspect of the meals also has a strong appeal. Delivered to customers' homes, the meals are contained in a new type of packaging that allows raw meats, vegetables and herbs to be fully steam-cooked in a microwave in less than five minutes.
"A lot of people try to eat healthier, but you have to be organ-ized," Stark said. "If you're an organized shopper, you can eat healthy, but otherwise, life makes it tough."
That statement gets to the heart of why prepared food departments have become more popular in recent years. Busy customers view supermarket delis as places to get freshly prepared foods similar to those that they might make at home if they had the time. And, as they discover ways to make their foods healthier, many deli departments are already making small changes to existing recipes.
"A couple of months ago, we started working on our recipes to put as many 'clean' ingredients in our foods as we can, and try to change the items that we've done in the past," said Dorothy Lane's Howell. "If we've used a soup base that contained MSG, for example, we're looking to find a comparable one that's clean."
Free-range chicken and hormone- and antibiotic-free beef and pork have also made their way into the recipes, and everything is made fresh daily at the company's stores, so no preservatives are added.
And if someone is skeptical of an old favorite that's now made with whole grains?
"If there's anything in the case that they want a sample of, we encourage them to have a sample," Howell said.
Incorporate ingredients like whole-grain pasta into traditional recipes to create better-for-you options.
One emerging trend - portion-controlled meals - might have a limited but powerful appeal to health-conscious customers.
With organic greens becoming more price competitive, an all-organic salad bar is proving popular at Giant's new concept store.
Sodium content is increasingly a consumer concern. Use spices and herbs to cut sodium levels without cutting flavor.