Culinary educators are in the perfect position to refocus how students approach adding salt to any dish.
By Lorri Fishman, MS, RDN
According to the American Heart Association, more than 75 percent of the sodium Americans eat comes from processed, prepackaged and restaurant foods. What if chefs only served dishes that tantalize the tongue and are also in line with our sodium needs?
As culinary educators, you are in the perfect position to encourage your students to understand the choices they will face every day in their professions, whether they are in a fine dining establishment or part of a team that revises recipes for a prepackaged foods manufacturer.
The average American consumes approximately 3,400 milligrams of sodium every day, which exceeds the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 2,300 milligrams each day. It should not only be an individual health goal to reduce the sodium we eat each day, but also a consideration as we construct a menu item.
When I start to share facts like these about sodium, students look at me like deer in headlights. Until the Human Nutrition course, they’ve watched as chefs take handfuls of salt or knobs of butter to finish a dish. It’s for this reason that I assign all of my students a simple (yet sometimes shocking) assignment: To track everything they eat by using the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) SuperTracker. Yes, it is a bit tedious to enter each ingredient for every meal, but it’s enlightening, especially as students are learning basic dietary guidelines and how the food they eat contributes to their overall health.
The SuperTracker goes well beyond calories to show a breakdown of the grains, vegetables, fruit, milk and protein you eat each day—as well as estimates for added sugars, saturated fat, essential vitamins and minerals, and, of course, sodium. If you haven’t used the tracker, I recommend entering every meal you eat for three to five days as accurately as you can. You’ll be surprised to learn how easy it is to exceed the sugar and sodium limits set by the USDA.
At the end of every course I teach, I see so many aha moments. However, when students leave my classroom, the lessons may not be reinforced. This is where all educators have the opportunity to make a difference, not only for students, but also for potential customers.
If our students embrace these guidelines while learning to cook and seek to decrease salt and sodium in the food they create, they will realize the approach gives them permission to be more creative while creating healthier dishes. Instead of swirling their fingers with a final pass of salt over a dish, they’ll work harder to give diners’ taste buds that final umami pop of flavor by adding herbs, spices, citrus or vinegar to each dish. They will realize you won’t miss the extra salt and the dish will still be both balanced and exciting.
It’s been a trend for decades to ignore the salt shaker at restaurant tables. Why shouldn’t we ask our students to reconsider the salt they add to each dish? Adding a squeeze of lemon or a toss of fresh herbs to enhance flavors may not replace 100 percent of the salt in a dish, but can act as a partial swap while augmenting the flavor.
It will take time for this trend to catch on, but as educators, you’re all in the perfect position to make it happen by helping the next generation of chefs learn how to make the best-tasting food possible.
Lorri Fishman, who has taught at Kendall College since 2009, is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) who has served as the manager of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Chicago and as a nutrition intervention specialist. She is an active volunteer, having served as a consultant on the wellness committee for Park View Elementary and an instructor of nutrition courses at Morton Grove Park District.Photos courtesy of Kendall College.