As Director of Health and Wellness at Darden, I was thrilled to see our company taking such a leadership role in this area. At that same time, I was a bit daunted: we knew where we wanted to go, but we didn’t yet know exactly how we were going to get there. And I knew that it was my job to help us figure it out.
Over the past year, we’ve been hard at work building the infrastructure to enable us to achieve our commitments. One of the key steps we have taken is to integrate a sophisticated software tool into the recipe development process. This tool will allow our chefs to calculate the nutrition content of our recipes during the development process, rather than waiting until the end to analyze the final dish. It sounds like a simple thing, but it actually represents a fundamental shift in the way we think about recipe development. It means that nutritional considerations can become an even more integral part of the process, in the same way taste, quality and cost have always been.
It also means that nutrition becomes a more iterative process, enabling our chefs to experiment by seeing what happens to the calorie content of a dish if they, say, remove an ounce of cheese or substitute Swiss for cheddar, or if they alter a preparation method such as grilling a piece of seafood versus broiling it.
One of the reasons I’m so excited about our new nutritional “App” is that we know one of the most powerful ways to meet our health and wellness commitments is to introduce new light and flavorful menu items. Yes, we will still reformulate others, but we know that making any changes to dishes that our guests already know and love is a delicate business. When someone has been ordering their favorite dish at Olive Garden or Red Lobster for years, you can be sure they notice – and let us know – if we make a change to the recipe!
Our paramount objective, as always, is to meet our guests’ expectations – something we will never sacrifice. So, whether we are introducing a new light and healthy item to the menu or making an ‘invisible’ change to an existing item, we are committed to delivering the great taste our guests have come to expect.
And I’m optimistic that those new items will be a hit. A study released earlier this year by research firm Mintel showed that Americans are increasingly aware of nutrition, with 67% saying they choose healthier foods and 31% saying they regularly order items from restaurants’ lower-calorie menu options. And our experience is bearing out: for example, we’ve gotten a good response from our guests about the Flavorful Under 500 items at LongHorn Steakhouse.
The past year has certainly been a busy one for my group, but we continue to be incredibly excited about the direction Darden is going on health and wellness. One of the best parts for me has been the opportunity to work closely with our culinary teams. I am so impressed with their energy and enthusiasm for developing new items for our guests. And as I look to the future, I am confident that Darden is on the right path to meet our commitments – and that when our guests visit our restaurants, they will find even more choice and variety to help them meet their health and wellness needs.
Cheryl L. Dolven, M.S., R.D., is the Director of Health and Wellness for Darden Restaurants. In this role, she provides strategic direction and nutrition expertise to support the company’s health and wellness initiatives, including menu offerings and external outreach. Before joining Darden, Cheryl worked as a corporate dietitian for two large supermarkets and served as the Director of Nutrition Marketing for the Kellogg Co. Growing up on a wheat farm in eastern Washington State, Cheryl’s interest in nutrition began early. She is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and is dedicated to an evidence-based approach the dissemination of accurate nutrition information.