At the University of Michigan, chefs, managers and buyers use a database that’s fully loaded with 10,000 recipes using more than 5,000 ingredients. The database, like many other systems for tracking nutrition, has made its way through advances in technology through the decades, with help from dietitians like Lindsay Haas.
At the start of her career, part of Haas’ internship at Michigan included taking recipes from paper files and floppy disks into a modern system from this century. She says she enjoyed this experience because it gave her a glimpse into how much has changed in dietetics and dining since the early 1980s, when much of the data moved onto those floppy disks.
It's not just the recipes and the technology that have changed. Haas reflects on how attitudes toward diet and body image have changed, too, among college students. We also get into food allergies and gluten-free dining and how that’s become a very normal part of college life and has been streamlined by the dining team.
Photo: The University of Michigan’s Lindsay Haas, RD, says her main focus with college students is getting them to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. She tells students, “As long as you focus on getting as many food groups on your plate every time you eat, you’ll be doing great.”
Q: You’re in charge of the recipe database. Is that daunting? 10,000 recipes is a lot!
A: I find it really fascinating. What’s cool about it is, it’s so much information that can be used in so many different ways. There’s purchasing information there as well. Keeping the database accurate is not only important for folks doing production in the kitchen, but also for those buying and trying to stay within food cost. It’s a much bigger deal than just cookbook for the dining halls.
Q: What’s the history behind the database?
A: Well, the database goes back to when “DOS” (disk operating system for computers) was a thing, so in the 1980s to mid-‘80s all the data from paper was entered onto DOS, but we still kept paper copies in file folders in case the database went down. The first internship I had was to scan those in [to the current system]. It was actually a fun job because you’d find handwritten notes from chefs on how the recipes were developed. A lot of recipes were named after individuals, like Grandma Schubert’s Meatloaf. Grandma Schubert’s own history may have been lost, but her recipe has lived on; there’s some legacy there.
Q: Any other interesting tidbits that you’ve found?
A: I came across some gelatin molds and stuff like that, but mostly I notice how techniques have changed. You see everything becoming less labor intensive as kitchen technology evolved to meet labor constraints. For example, old pizza recipes had us doing the crust from scratch and proofing and everything.
Q: And back to the present day on campus, let’s talk trends. Is gluten-free still a big area of focus/anxiety for students or is it pretty much just under control?
A: It’s not so novel anymore. We make sure there’s a gluten-free entrée for every meal and we have gluten-free pantries for bread, muffins and waffles. We’ve gotten to the point where it’s pretty much streamlined.
Q: What about food allergies?
A: Out of the food allergies we see, peanut allergies are the most common. We take food allergy management very, very seriously. You can see full ingredient labels for every item, and if someone is allergic to more than one thing, we’re happy to work with them individually. I don’t think food allergies are going away…we rely on self-disclosure of allergies, so I just hope everyone discloses it.
Q: What do you tell students who are looking for the paleo diet or keto or other diets or fads? And how has the movement for body acceptance changed the way people are seeing themselves?
A: I think social media has had an impact on how students are viewing themselves; I see more acceptance of more body shapes and sizes, but I still see a lot of “diet culture” proliferating and a huge focus on physique. I see a lot of students prescribing very strict diets for themselves. We attract good students—student who have a perfectionist mindset—and that crosses over. I try to do a lot of education on how our bodies metabolize food and how we store it as energy.
Q: Why are we as a culture so focused on weight and weight loss?
A: Weight is only one factor of your health. It’s so important to look holistically at your diet and your health, your resting heart rate and other factors, like are you able to physically achieve what you want to achieve during the day? Unfortunately, society puts a lot of emphasis on how you look and how much you weigh, because that’s an easy indicator of your health, but it’s not the only one.
Q: What do you hope students come away with from what you can teach them?
A: I just really tell students that they need a variety of foods in their life. As long as you focus on getting as many food groups on your plate every time you eat, you’ll be doing great. It’s a simple concept, but it can be hard to achieve. I recommend pairing something you crave with something that’s better for you, like Doritos and baby carrots. With 20-year-olds, I’m trying to get them to eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible, while knowing it’s important to also listen to your cravings.