Creamy Stovetop Irish Oatmeal and the powers of Seductive Nutrition

by Holly on November 30, 2012

I can pretty much guarantee that the word ‘seductive’ has never been used here on the blog. What I can’t guarantee in the least is that, as a food blogger, recipe developer and food photograph-maker, that seduction isn’t exactly what I’ve been attempting for all the past years of writing and sharing here on the blog. Luckily, I only share what seduces me as well, so at least we’re even.

I find it highly intriguing to know that there are specialists out there studying the psychology of food and doctors and brands working hard behind the scenes on the psychology behind what we eat, what we choose to eat and how that information can be used to help us make healthier decisions, whether we know it or not.

It got me thinking about what the actual definitions of the two words are and how that applies to my little family here and home and to my friends here in blog land…

We are shifting our focus in this country, and indeed the world, to get away from the mindless eating of the past and change to MINDFUL EATING.

I received this information to share the highlights with you, and although this post is a loooooong one, I find the information so intriguing that in addition to my usual ramblings, you can read a good portion of the information I received.

I thought about editing it down even more, but honestly this is such good food for thought I just have to share it! Sorry for the bad pun, but seriously, you were expecting it, right? This is me after all.

Recently, Unilever Food Solutions hosted a group of chefs and restaurant operators at the Culinary Institute of America-Greystone (CIA) to highlight their efforts to help people choose delicious, slightly healthier meals when they eat out through a new concept called, “Seductive Nutrition.” Developed by Unilever Food Solutions after the release of a global World Menu Report, “Seductive Nutrition” nudges guests to choose top menu items made slightly healthier through small changes to ingredients and preparation methods, with more enticing menu descriptions.

Several of the chefs and operators in attendance were awarded the CIA weekend trip as winners in Unilever Food Solutions’ “Seductive Nutrition Challenge.” The challenge asked restaurants to pledge to cut 100 calories from a top menu item by applying “Seductive Nutrition” tools and techniques.  The CIA event served as a national stage for them to share their success story among their industry peers and experts in the field, as well as motivate additional chefs to adopt the same approach to help Americans everywhere eat a little healthier when dining out, without sacrificing enjoyment.

“Unilever Food Solutions’ ‘Seductive Nutrition’ approach aligns with existing research that shows the dining choices we make can easily be shaped by minor cues, like changing the name of grilled chicken to Savory Southwestern Grilled Chicken,” said Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. “The chefs showed that you can even reduce calories in popular dishes and still make them very appealing.” Dr. Wansink led a talk at the CIA event focused on “Mindless Eating” and how the wording of food descriptions and how the way food is presented can help entice diners into eating more healthfully.

“We’re thrilled to see the concept of ‘Seductive Nutrition’ put into practice at restaurants, college campuses and other out-of-home dining venues,” said Lisa Carlson, MS, RD, nutrition manager at Unilever Food Solutions. “The winning chefs have truly captured the essence of Seductive Nutrition – shaving a small number of calories, while making their dish just as delicious and appealing by romancing the menu descriptions.”

While the Culinary Institute of America-Greystone event focused on restaurant chefs and operators, the tips shared by Dr. Wansink can translate from out-of-home to in-home dining. For instance:

  • Simple, yet descriptive, words can help guests choose healthier menu items. Including descriptive adjectives can turn everyday mashed potatoes into “creamy, whipped mashed potatoes,” and a yogurt parfait into a “silken yogurt parfait.”
  • Incorporating vivid adjectives can trigger people’s meal expectations. Wansink and his team’s analysis of more than 1,000 descriptively named menu items pointed to three key ways for foods to be “seductively” named:
    • Geographic labels – Using words to create an image or illicit the ideology of a geographic area that consumers can associate with foods; e.g., Southwestern Tex-Mex Salad.
    • Nostalgic labels – Alluding to a diner’s past can trigger happy associations tied to family, tradition, national origin and a sense of wholesomeness. Use fond associations to create appealing names; e.g., Old-World Italian Manicotti.
    • Sensory labels – Describing the taste, smell and texture of menu items served can help set consumers’ dining expectations; e.g., Warm Apple Crisp.
  • “Seductive Nutrition” includes the holistic dining experience. Nice dinnerware, soft light and a matching tablecloth can help enhance a person’s dining expectations. Wansink’s research also found people rated the taste of a brownie much higher when served on a nice dinner plate than on a cheap plastic plate.
FROM ME: Interested in what we can hope to see happening in professional kitchens and perhaps even in food writing and media?

Chef Steve Jilleba, CMC, corporate executive chef at Unilever Food Solutions, has “romanced” many a menu to help items sound as delicious as they taste. He has provided a few tips to make healthful menu items sound better. The trick to an appealing menu is carefully-crafted words and phrases that let the ingredients and dishes do the talking:

  • Let the ingredients speak for themselves: Chefs should take a look at their top dish recipes. Which ingredients make sense to highlight? They may be surprised at the unique or special ingredients hidden in the dish that make it a signature. Ingredients with a slightly “exotic” sound will add appetite appeal and value to their menus.
  • Place of origin: Guests love to know from where their food originates. Providing menu specifics like Michigan blueberries, Sonoma goat cheese or Alaskan wild salmon all add valuable details that can drive selection.
  • Romance the dish: Use words with sensory or “romance” adjectives (that includes preparation methods, too). A few well-placed adjectives can make any healthful dish sound more appealing. Tell a story whenever possible.

Chefs and operators have the power to help improve the health of guests. Making small changes lets guests benefit from fewer calories while continuing to enjoy their favorite menu items:

  • Right-size portions: As today’s diners become more health and weight conscious, the challenge is to offer appealing and filling menu items with less calories and fat. Unilever Food Solutions suggests offering slightly smaller meat portions and more vegetables to fill the plate.
  • Healthier cooking methods: While frying adds unnecessary fat and calories to dishes, there are cooking methods that bring flavor but add little or no fat: Stir-frying, roasting, grilling, broiling, baking, poaching, sautéing and steaming. Using a variety of cooking methods can give food more interesting taste and appeal to diners.
  • Leaner meats, proteins and cheeses: There are many small changes that can be made to shave calories off dishes, such as using “choice” or “select” grades of beef; or, cuts of red meat and pork labelled “loin” and “round” trimming the fat before cooking. Offer chicken breasts instead of the fattier dark meat (legs and thighs), and be sure to remove the skin. Make egg dishes with egg whites instead of egg yolks. And for recipes that use dairy products, try low-fat or fat-free versions of milk, yogurt and cheese.
  • Lighter ingredients: Prepare foods and use ingredients that have little or no fat. Use reduced-fat, low-fat and light mayonnaise, salad dressings, dips and marinades.

A few suggestions for cutting calories would be to make changes in the cooking prep, or menu item swaps, such as:

  • More grilling, braising, steaming (less frying)
  • Right-sized portions (or provide options)
  • Bolder tasting cheeses
  • Sauce/dressing on the side, smaller ramekins
  • Healthier options especially for children
  • More vegetables, which are less expensive than protein


Whether it is through descriptive words, appealing to a person’s nostalgic side or enticing someone with the terroir of a food or dish, there is definitely a seduction afoot in the food world. Thank goodness these powers are starting to be used for good!

I never had a name for what we do when writing about food in descriptive ways and making pictures that make you want to grab the food off your computer screen and dig in. I like that now there is a term for it when it’s done in a way that is encouraging healthier choices by adding the nutrition side to the focus.

This Irish Oatmeal is a good example of something that really isn’t seductive in any way on it’s own to most people. Here we have, at the heart of it, a bowl of oats cooked in a bit of water and skim milk.

If that was all I said, you would probably say, “Meh.”

But, if you saw the picture and read a description of creamy, soft Irish oats cooked with milk, a touch of vanilla and topped with a sprinkling of Muscabado sugar and a pat of butter, your whole outlook most likely changed. And yet, they are the exact same thing. And, although there is a bit of butter and sugar on top, I can guarantee you it’s less than what goes into the instant, flavored packet stuff.

I can attest to the fact that this works. It doesn’t hurt that these oats really are from Irelend (more on that very soon!) and really are fantastic, but the ambience of how these were presented and served makes all the difference.

I’ve tried to get my kids to eat oatmeal before and haven’t understood their reluctance. I absolutely adore oatmeal, even the instant packet stuff to a certain extent. So why wouldn’t they? Especially on a cold winter day. Before when I’ve just made the oatmeal and put it in their little plastic bowls with a bit of milk stirred in and a dash of sweetener they’ve been unwilling to even try it.

For the oatmeal this time, I put a kid-sized portion that looked like this in front of my boys and low and behold, the oatmeal was eaten and loved. While I do believe that ingredients make all the difference in things like this, I also firmly believe that there is a lot to be said for presentation, especially the first time you are trying to get someone to try something they think they don’t like.

This method, especially of making something they think they won’t like look like something they just have to try, has worked for me many times (funny enough, mainly just at breakfast and snack time – we’re working on full meals!). For instance, my kids love yogurt parfaits – they like saying the name, they like how it looks, they love the layers and they love having a choice about what is going in to the food. While I know that hiding fruits and especially vegetables in kids food is a common practice that works for some, it has never been something I have tried. I want them to know what they are eating and, even if they don’t love it the first time around, keep trying to teach them more. We learn how to eat what we are taught.

At the grocery store, we probably spend the most time in the produce section just because we look at it like it’s a candy land for the kids – it smells fresh, the colors are plentiful and gorgeous and the shapes are infinite and interesting, as well as the tastes. It is the one area in the store I never have to worry about feeling guilty if I let them choose something and we love to wander through and try new things. I often have to actually curb their choices in there because they would try to blow my entire grocery budget! They actually even prefer most of their vegetables raw and fresh. It’s the choice they were given first and the natural textures seem to be their favorite. There was no magic behind this other than playing to their natural curiosity and sense of adventure. Add to that an appropriate amount of enthusiasm from Mom and a healthy amount of information and we’ve had great success in the fruit and veggie area. (Now if only the difficulty with my kids wasn’t that they need to gain weight and eat more fat, I could be a happy mom about their nutrition indeed.)

The same attitude translates well to other areas, like going to a fish market (it helps that I have boys who love to go fishing too!) and looking at all the different things they could try and talking about where they are from.

Good to know I was on to something!
Straight from the source, here is what this Seductive Nutrition secret weapon is all about for those of us at home:

Teaching the Art of Seductive Nutrition to Help Create a Better-for-You Dining Experience

Brian Wansink (Ph.D.), Cornell Food and Brand Lab, Cornell University

As an expert in the psychology of food – including research from his Cornell Food and Brand Lab, and book Mindless Eating – Dr. Wansink understands how small changes in people’s everyday food decisions can make a positive difference on their health. Dr. Wansink is supportive of Unilever Food Solutions’ “Seductive Nutrition” approach, as he wants to help industry professionals, restaurant operators and their dining patrons learn how quick, easy meal changes – whether dining in a restaurant or at home – can make positive impact on how people eat, and therefore how they live. Included below are a few tips from Dr. Wansink for how you can seduce your diners into making the healthier, yet just as delicious, meal choices:

  • Research from my Cornell Food and Brand Lab, and my book Mindless Eating, show that we eat first with our eyes and imagination, and then with our stomachs. If we think something is going to taste good, it also tends to.  Knowing this tendency, “Seductive Nutrition” may help make the healthiest of foods not only appear – but also taste – indulgent to your customers.
  • Simple, yet descriptive, words on a menu board can help lead customers to select healthier menu items. Using words like creamy, hot, or spicy on a menu board have been shown to help increase food sales in restaurants by up to 28 percent; and, in one of our studies, we found it led people to view restaurants as more “trendy and up-to-date.” It’s an easy change to make.  For example, including descriptive adjectives can turn your everyday mashed potatoes into “creamy, whipped mashed potatoes,” and a yogurt parfait into a “silken yogurt parfait.”
  • Incorporating vivid adjectives can trigger people’s meal expectations. In our analysis of more than 1,000 descriptively-named menu items, we found three key ways for foods to be “seductively” named:
  • Geographic Labels: Use words to create an image or illicit the ideology of a geographic area that diners can associate with foods. Examples include Southwestern Tex-Mex Salad; homegrown Iowa Pork Chops; “Real” Carolina Barbeque Sauce; or Country Peach Tart.
  • Nostalgic Labels: Alluding to your customers’ past can trigger happy associations of family, tradition, national origin and a sense of wholesomeness. Use these fond associations to create appealing names, like Old-World Italian Manicotti; Grandma’s Best Banana Cream Pie; or Green Gables Matzo Ball Soup.
  • Sensory Labels: Describing the taste, smell and texture of menu items served can help set customer dining expectations. Dessert chefs accomplish this masterfully; example menu names include Velvet Chocolate Mousse; Silky-Smooth Pumpkin Pie; or Warm Apple Crisp. Sensory labels apply to all meal courses, such as Hearty, Sizzling Steaks; Snappy-fresh Seasonal Carrots; or Garlic butter-infused Chicken Kiev.

“Seductive Nutrition” can speak to the holistic dining experience. Nice dinnerware, soft lighting and a matching tablecloth can help enhance a person’s dining expectations and is something to keep in mind for your next dinner party. In my research, we found people rated the taste of a brownie much higher when it was served on a nice dinner plate than on a cheap plastic plate.


In a nutshell, here’s what has worked for me with my picky eaters. Since I know what  I picky eater I was (and still am sometimes) it is important to me that they learn to be better eaters now so that they carry it throughout their lives.

Maybe you’ll try this with your kids and see what happens!

  • Let them help guide you. Get them involved in the menu planning and decision making process. Teaching kids about food should start with the buying process and engage them from the start.
  • Implement a no-stress attitude of “you don’t have to like it, or eat it all, but you do have to at least try it.” This way, they are exposed to new things and it isn’t a battle that makes them forevermore associate that food with stress and upset.
  • Get the kids in the kitchen with you. We look through books together, blogs, Pinterest, and where ever else we see pictures of food. I’m still continually surprised by the things I think they wouldn’t like that they think look fantastic and want to try.
  • Don’t bother to hide what you are trying to get them to eat. It won’t help either of you in the long run. Instead be a little enthusiastic and share your knowledge with them. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Kids are sponges for information and love to know ‘stuff’ about ‘stuff.’
  • Make it fun. For example, around our house, bright, fresh green broccoli is a miniature forest of crunchy green trees. They came up with the comparison on their own and all I had to do was encourage the curiosity.
  • Make it appealing. If you want your kids to try something, don’t bother trying to make it necessarily look cute or like something it isn’t. Personally, I don’t have the time and patience for a lot of fancy garnishing and plating when it comes to the kids meals. I’ve found that if I serve them on special plates or just make something a little special about their plate, without having to turn something into a picture of their favorite cartoon character or a butterfly or something, that they will try it anyway.
  • Change of venue. If I really want to pull out the big guns and get them to try something new, we make it into a full experience. For adults that may mean soft lighting, tablecloths and nice dishes. For kids, most of the time it’s even easier. How about a picnic as the setting? Since it’s winter, we even do a lot of carpet picnics for movie night. They may still get their pizza for movie night, but maybe it’s something they wouldn’t normally try. Or maybe it’s just a variety of finger foods like a little buffet where they get to try lots of new things and feels a bit like a celebration.

Disclaimer: I received compensation for this post as part of a sponsored opportunity from the Mom It Forward blogger network for Unilever Food Solutions. All ideas, images, and opinions are my own as you could probably already tell from the fact that I talked about how I love to get into my kids heads and get them to think the way I want them to about food. Being a picky eater is a tough road and raising one is even harder. I’ll take any help I can get and this is good information!

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