The cultural shift to healthy appetizers

By Lucia Weiler

At my recent Nutrition for NON-Nutritionists training workshop, I was reminded how important it is to open up the event with a story that hooks the audience and gives them a reason to listen and stay for more. The same thinking holds true for food. In a restaurant, appetizers set the stage for what’s to come.

Snacks and appetizers can be a part of tasty menu offerings and fit the hallmarks of healthy eating.  Leverage the rising popularity of appetizers and snacks in restaurants and your patrons will be coming back for more. Here’s how:

Discovery and adventure

The Food Marketing Institute has named “discovery” as a must have food attribute. Consumers are looking for more sophisticated food experiences and ethnic food inspiration. Starters and appetizers are the perfect place to begin.

“People want to be surprised by an appetizer,” says Donna Bottrell, a registered dietitian and chef. “They seek food that’s prepared in a new way and that is also entertaining.”

Appetizers are the perfect menu items to leverage the discovery trend. Consumers may be more likely to try a unique appetizer since it’s less of a commitment than a main dish.  A recent report from Datassential finds that wings are the most common item on appetizer menus in the USA, followed by French fries, jalapeño poppers and calamari. Unfortunately these are all low on the “healthy fare” scale. The good news for foodservice is that the same report points out that more healthful appetizers that are non-fried had double-digit growth. Think lettuce wraps, ahi tuna, hummus and flatbreads.

Dietitian Tip: I love lettuce wrap appetizers because they’re fresh, colourful and swap out bread for leafy greens. Seafood is hot too – just keep it non-fried.

Nutritional Balance

Not only can appetizers be a smart way to keep extreme hunger (and overeating) at bay, but they can also be a delicious way to add more nutrition to the diet when enjoyed in moderation. From a nutrition perspective, quality and quantity of the appetizer matters! Include at least two to three of the four food groups in Canada’s Food Guide in a dish. Evaluate the nutritional profile for your appetizers. An appetizer serving should contain fewer calories than a meal. Create appetizers that contain 250 calories or less.

Sue Mah, registered dietitian and nutrition expert says: “Although calorie counting may be passé with some consumers, there is a rise in mindful eating and choosing menu items that pack a nutrition punch for the calorie cost.”

“Better-for-you” types of statements on menu items are regulated and anchored in to the Nutrition Facts Table. With mandatory menu labelling just around the corner for many restaurants, leaders in the business are looking at providing nutrition information on their menu items.

Dietitian Tip:  Analyze the nutrition content of your menu items and leverage the nutrition information in your menu items to signal healthy choices to your customers. Contact me for nutrient analysis of your menu items.

Veggie forward

Plant-based everything is soaring in popularity! Chefs say customers are looking for vegetarian appetizers, making that the most frequently cited appetizer trend of 2015. Even non-vegetarians are influenced and will partake in non-meat appetizers. Create appetizers that offer protein and fibre to help people feel full for longer. Mah says that alternative proteins such as pulses, soy, tempeh and even insects are gaining popularity for their nutrition and sustainability.

Dietitian Tip: Think outside the meat box for a protein boost in appetizers. Eggs are the most popular meat alternatives, prepared by 78 per cent of consumers at home; 61 per cent serve beans, lentils, or legumes; 28 per cent, veggie burgers; 28 per cent, quinoa/other whole grains; 18 per cent, seeds/nuts; and 14 per cent, tofu or tempeh.

Beverages as appetizers

Smoothies ROCK and can pack a lot of goodness in a cup! Dairy-based drinks/alternative drinks were the most active new beverage development category last year. Leverage this trend and look for a healthy appetizer boost in a beverage format.

“Think to build on the nutrient-packed beverage trend,” says Bottrell, “It’s okay to do something like a beverage for an appetizer.”

Dietitian Tip: I love the idea of beverage appetizers! Bring on the bone broth appetizer or soups without the heavy creams! Try a trendy Mediterranean-diet-inspired gazpacho or a Mexican-inspired black bean soup. At a recent culinary event, I sampled a lentil green spinach smoothie as an appetizer – it was delicious!

Keep it small

Small portions have become a key component of appetizer menus, with nearly a quarter of top restaurant chains offering them. Bite-sized appetizers are the fifth-most frequently cited appetizer trend by chefs. Consumers are open to sharing appetizers in order to try more foods. Bottrell agrees: “Make appetizers shareable so diners don’t fill up on them. Consumers are watching where they’re spending their calories.” Appetizers fit into a cultural shift of mini meals, or grazing-type eating which is considered healthier than overeating at a single meal.

Dietitian Tip:  Keep your appetizer portions in check. Some patrons may order a few appetizers instead of a full meal for variety.

About the author:

Lucia Weiler is a registered dietitian and faculty member at Humber College. Lucia is a trusted, credible food and nutrition expert, engaging speaker, writer and media influencer who translates up-to-date scientific knowledge to doable, relevant recommendations that motivates others. Lucia is the President of Weiler Nutrition Communications Inc. and Co-Founder of Nutrition for NON-Nutritionists Course, a unique training program in its 10th year of success. More information is available at

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