Recipe Development Insights with Rosie Benner, RD

Recipe Development Insights with Rosie Benner, RD

May 4, 2016

By RDBA Executive Director Annette Maggi, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Solution selling is a key part of the role of retail dietitians, and to be effective, the retailer must offer solutions for the shopper to answer the age old question of “what’s for dinner tonight?” Or for breakfast, lunch or snack, for that matter. In light of this, more and more retail dietitians are getting involved with recipe development. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity recently to connect with Rosalind Benner, RD, one of the first retail RDs, and gain her insights on how dietitians can be effective at recipe development. 

Rosie began her career with the H-E-B Grocery Company in 1997 as a recipe developer and product preparation writer for all of H-E-B’s new Own Brand products. “At first, I tested a lot of new products, developed heating or cooking instructions and recipes that the consumers could understand easily,” comments Rosie. After two years, she was given a project to redesign the recipes on all of the H-E-B children breakfast cereals. “I decided to make these recipes healthy and easy for kids to prepare,” she says. They were also the first recipes to have Nutrition Facts, and from that time on, Rosie began to develop recipes that were not only easy to prepare with fewer ingredients for the average consumer, but also healthier. “By the time I retired 15 years later,” she comments, “I had written over 10,000 recipes for the fast growing line of H-E-B products.” Clearly she is an expert in recipe development.

Finding Inspiration

When Rosie began working at H-E-B, she had the opportunity to attend culinary classes annually at the Culinary Institute of America at the Greystone campus. “I was able to take 1-2 week classes on the latest food trends, grilling methods from around the world, traditional Italian, Spanish, Indian, Asian and Mexican cookery. I was also able to take a course in culinary media publishing.” These classes were very important in providing insight to the world of ethnic foods. “My big challenge,” Rosie indicates, “was to translate these very intricate recipes into recipes the customers could prepare and be proud of.” She also finds inspiration in different food magazines and by tracking the latest food trends, and she often uses the Internet to search out similar recipes that she plans on developing.   

Before You Start 

There are many things to take into consideration before you start recipe development. “When I was given a recipe project for a particular line of products, I had to get information on the consumer including financial demographics and lifestyle demands,” says Rosie. “Our Insight team would run programs to get me the information. I would then select a series of recipes most often consumed by this demographic, and could then begin to make plans for recipe development. Once I selected a recipe to develop, I would research 5-6 typical recipes and look at their ingredients and method of preparation.” Because Benner’s goal was to develop a recipe that was easy and fast with minimal ingredients, she would develop new cooking methods for the recipe to speed up the time. If she had too many ingredients, she would combine two or three as one (for example 1 teaspoon each: olive oil, chopped garlic & chopped parsley).

Recipe Testing

As Rosie was always interested in making a recipe healthier, she experimented with reducing ingredients like sugar, salt, cheese, oils or butter.  She comments, “when I presented the recipes to the Product Development team, I would have them taste the different versions before I told them what was reduced in each. You must have some tasters to approve your recipes.” 

As mentioned earlier, Rosie was a prolific recipe developer, and organization was the key to testing them. “I usually had to prepare 8-10 recipes in one morning for a noon tasting. This required me to have a very precise shopping list which I did the day before. I would line up the recipes on trays and place all ingredients for each in these trays. I was lucky to have dietetic interns that enjoyed this prep process. A lot of prep work was done the day before and ingredients placed in zipper bags. You also need to have a list of equipment, utensils and dishes to be used.”   

Recipe Writing Rules

According to Benner, “you cannot use the same name, you must change at least three ingredients and change all of the instructions to your style. No copying is allowed or you may get a notice from a lawyer. You must also list the ingredients in the order of use. You must give a prep time, bake, cook, roast or chill time, how many servings and their size.”  

Rosie shares a story of a past problem in this area, “We had a frozen chicken dinner entree called King Ranch Chicken. I remember telling the product development team to change the name. They finally did when the King Ranch lawyers contacted H-E-B about the problem. At that time, we had several items that had that name, and they all changed. I am sure it was a costly mistake.”

Dietitians vs. Chefs

With more and more retailers hiring chefs, I asked Rosie about their differing roles as it relates to recipe development. Benner indicates that “most chefs have experience in quantity cookery or high end entrée cooking. The chefs have to retain their skills to make all instructions easy to understand, to tell the consumer how to mix the ingredients, and what equipment they need to mix the ingredients.” On the other hand, Rosie comments, “A dietitian has better insight into the customer’s needs and ability to prepare the recipe. The dietitian’s nutrition background will always seek out a healthier version of the recipe.”   

In closing of our interview, Rosie commented, “After all these years of developing recipes, I can taste foods in my brain just like a composer can write songs in his mind.” That’s true passion, isn’t it?