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Vegetarian Journal's Foodservice Update
Healthy Tips and Recipes for Institutions

Volume V, Number 4  Autumn 1997  

By Suzanne Havala, MS, RD, FADA

When registered dietitian Cathy Conway took on the challenge of introducing vegetarian foods to the 25 meal sites that she monitors for the NY Department on Aging, she did it with a positive attitude. "I was excited about the opportunity to test the menus as a means of introducing more healthful food choices into the system. And as a vegetarian myself, I knew how good vegetarian meals could be."

The meal sites serve a clientele that is predominantly African-American, Hispanic, or Jewish, and Conway has found that she has had to adapt both her recipes and her presentation of the menu items to accommodate ethnic preferences and, to some extent, expectations.

For instance, she tested a menu consisting of vegetarian chili, rice, kale with sesame seeds, cornbread, juice, and milk at a meal site in Harlem. Most of the individuals there were African-Americans who had grown up in the South. For them, greens cooked with sesame seeds was blasphemy or at least a radical and unwelcome departure from tradition. "What are these little things doing in my greens?"

At first, Conway says with a smile, she apologized for "messing with the greens." Then she found herself standing up in front of the group giving a lecture about the nutritional contribution of sesame seeds and facilitating a dialogue among meal site participants about what other kinds of new foods they would like to see served at the site for a change of pace and improvement in nutrition. "I found that this kind of exchange was a great benefit to the meal program at the Harlem site," says Conway. Not only did the participants have a chance to express their needs and preferences, but I also had a good opportunity to introduce some nutrition information and increase awareness of the connection between diet and health. The participants seemed to be more enthusiastic and interested in the menu changes after that. I've made this kind of dialogue a regular feature now at all of my sites, and everyone enjoys it very much, including me."

Conway notes that she made some additional adjustments to a few recipes, as well as changing the names of some of the dishes. For instance, she adapted the recipe for the vegetarian chili that she served at the Harlem site by decreasing the amount of liquid in it. This made a thicker, less "runny" chili, which Conway thought was preferable. She also decided to call the Vegetarian Lasagna "Spinach Lasagna" instead. "Funny how a little change like that can make all the difference in how well someone accepts a new dish," chuckles Conway.

Before testing the vegetarian menu set at other sites, Conway strongly advises discussing the menus with key staff members, including the site director, cook, and seniors that may be members of the site's nutrition committee or on the senior advisory board. "You can't do anything alone," Conway cautions.

At her sites, Conway and key staff members reviewed the entire vegetarian menu set and picked out those menus that the group thought would be most likely to appeal to the most seniors at each particular site. "I tried to be inclusive and sought the permission of the sites first before implementing the menus. It makes all the difference in how well the menus are accepted."

Conway is using some of the recipes that accompany the Meals on Wheels menu set, but she is also relying on the ol' stand-by, Food for Fifty, for many of the others. She would be pleased to talk to anyone else who is considering testing the Meal on Wheels Vegetarian Menus to offer more tips and advice on introducing vegetarian foods into their facilities. She can be reached at (212) 442-2011 by phone or fax her at (212) 442-2011.

Excerpts from the Autumn 1997 Issue:

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