Some of the best ideas for gluten-free menu items, ingredient substitutions and preparation methods can come from conversations with your customers.
Opportunities for collaboration are everywhere: From the college student who found a great flourless chocolate cake recipe to share to the 80-something CCRC resident who can teach the chef a thing or two about the perfect gluten-free binder for meatloaf.
When the foodservice team is enthusiastic and accessible, gluten-free eaters will feel more comfortable. This can be especially true in the college environment, where students could be making their own food choices for the first time, says Beth Winthrop, Sodexo’s national director of health and wellness.
FEATURED RECIPE: Gluten-Free Flourless Chocolate Cake
Sodexo has been recruiting more gluten-free/food allergy students to be on committees and national advisory boards.
Winthrop says that orientation programs—whether for new students, senior living residents or new employees—can serve to introduce gluten-sensitive individuals to executive chefs and dietitians. Done right, these introductions can lead to an ongoing collaboration.
Pastry Chef Shaina Brock’s flourless chocolate cake and gluten-free chocolate chip cookies have gained a ravenous following at Loyola University.
Brock, who did a stint making pastry at Disney World, knows that giving customers what they crave is absolutely key.
So there is an ongoing conversation and sharing of recipes among the gluten-free students and the bake shop staff, a few of whom eat gluten-free as well.
The idea for Chocolate Flourless Cake came from students, as did the Chocolate Fudge and Strawberry Cake.
Brock is careful to safeguard the bake shop to make sure there’s no cross contamination when gluten-free baking is happening. All gluten-free items are made in the beginning of the day, before any items with flour are made. Surfaces and equipment are washed down and since it’s the beginning of the day, aprons and clothing are free of flour. Tools for gluten-free baking are washed and then wrapped in plastic before use.
She uses rice flour and tapioca flour instead of regular flour, and xanthan gum as a leavening agent.
Some would ask, “Why go through the effort, when it’s become increasingly easy to purchase packaged gluten-free baked goods?”
“If you’ve ever tried Shaina’s gluten-free chocolate chip cookies, you wouldn’t be asking that question,” says Bill Zimnoch, resident district manager at Loyola.
One-on-One in K-12
For Brad Faith, K-12 chef at Columbia (MO) Schools, the quest for a great gluten-free menu started with a young student, a girl who is allergic to not only gluten, but also dairy and even tomatoes. As the chef worked on the menus, this student served as a great sounding board for ideas.
“She was the catalyst,” Faith says. “It really lit a light bulb for me and my boss: Something needs to be done to get the best meals possible for these kids.”
About 1,000 children out of the 20,000 in the district need gluten-free and/or special diets, Faith estimates.
Right now, working out of one of the district’s three central production kitchens, Faith is writing recipes, making different dishes—some gluten-free, some soy-, corn- or dairy-free, some all of the above—and often times going back to the drawing board to tweak an ingredient here, some seasoning there.
He then safely vacuum packs the meals and takes them to three schools where about a dozen gluten-sensitive kids participate in taste tests. Needless to say, Faith must keep an eye on costs, and also make good use of commodities like ground beef, as with an old classic that can easily be made gluten-free: Salisbury Steak.
Faith says scratch cooking is the best way to keep control of ingredients.
“To ensure no gluten, dairy or other allergen ingredients are present, we like to cook with as few processed ingredients as possible,” he says.
When There are Limitations
In a K-12 setting, kids and their parents may request some of the same store-bought gluten-free products they use at home, but oftentimes budget constraints mean that other approaches more cost effectively accommodate those on gluten-free diets.
“It’s a challenge because we don’t have the volume of gluten-free eaters now to justify large purchases of gluten-free specialty products,” says Jessica Keene, MS, RD, menu systems development dietitian at San Diego (CA) Unified School District. SDUSD has 235 sites and about 130,000 students. And there, diets related to dairy, egg and peanut allergies are more common, Keene says.
For gluten-free diets, chefs and dietitians at SDUSD have leaned heavily on the district’s salad-bar-centric lunch ideal.
“We have salad bars at the majority of sites, and there is a good variety of Romaine lettuce, corn, jicama, pinto beans, mandarin orange, things that are naturally gluten-free,” she says, adding that all students are encouraged to make vegetables their “center of plate” by starting with the salad bar to build a good lunch. Other ‘naturally gluten-free’ items used in the district include select deli meats, corn tortillas and rice.
Learning from Senior Gluten-Free Eaters
In the senior dining environment, residents who follow gluten-free diets can have decades of experience to share.
At Pennswood Village, a CCRC in Newtown, PA, one resident in particular has been a terrific source of gluten-free recipe tips for Mary Cooley, director of dining services.
When it came to making meatloaf gluten-free, Cooley went to that resident and said, “Hey, what do you think?”
The resident shared her secret: Rice Chex. When ground up, the gluten-free cereal makes a great binder for meatloaf. The chefs took the idea and ran with it: another nice gluten-free collaboration.