Restaurant food sales are a $440 billion per year business. There are approximately 878,000 restaurants with over 12 million employees in the U.S. Currently, 46.4 percent of one’s annual income is spent on buying meals away from home. In 2010, it has been predicted that 53 percent of one’s income will be spent on meals eaten away from home. With obesity on the rise, the restaurant association is looking for healthy strategies to retain their customers. Most health professionals will agree that portion sizes at restaurants are totally out of control. One might ask who determines the portion size? If our country is going to get a handle on the growing obesity problem, restaurants will have to make some changes in the type and the portion sizes of their menu items.
Here are some suggestions that were made at the recent American Dietetic Association meeting held in Los Angeles that can help restaurants promote healthier choices.
- Pay more attention to vegetables.
Increase the variety of vegetables offered, use various types of vegetables, from dried to their juices.
Use vegetables in more meal components such as soups, appetizers and sauces.
Focus on meal preparation.
Be inspired by ethnic ingredients.
- Explore whole grains and legumes.
Explore using a variety of whole grains.
Use grains in the four Ss – soups, salads, sides and sauces.
Use more beans.
- Offer more fruit.
Use diced fruit for grilled items.
Offer mixed fruit compotes as sides.
Offer poached or grilled fruit as a dessert.
- Provide vegetarian options.
- Be fat smart.
Use flavorful oil when appropriate.
Use low-fat cheese and other dairy products moderate in fat.
Explore non-traditional low-fat methods for thickening sauces such as using pureed vegetables as thickeners.
- Select leaner meats.
Choose fish and poultry.
Offer leaner meats such a buffalo.
- Pay attention to cooking methods, which can have an effect on flavor.
- Serve right-sized portions.
Offer variable portions sizes.
Provide value by focusing on quality rather than quantity.
More is not necessarily better.
Offer small desserts as just a taste.
- Provide nutrient information on the menu.
An educated consumer is the best customer.
- Educate servers on healthier alternatives on the menu so they can alert customers.
- Partner with a dietetic professional to provide nutritional information on menu items and strategies.
National Chains That Cater to the Health-Conscious Diner
According to the National Restaurant Association, 75 percent of consumers customize their meals by asking for alternative preparation methods. “To cater to increasingly health-conscious diners, restaurants across the country are increasing their efforts to provide what their guests ask for, including special menu items for those watching their calorie, carbohydrate and/or fat intake, voluntarily providing nutrition information on brochures and on web sites, and establishing their own initiatives to assist consumers live a healthy lifestyle.” Here is a sampling of those efforts.
Applebee’s has teamed up with Weight Watcher’s to develop a line of menu items for diners who are on the Weight Watcher’s program.
Bob Evans has posted nutritional information for all menu items on its website. They can also be viewed in-store upon request. Bob Evans is test marketing the Fit for You menu, which includes low-fat or low-carbohydrate items.
Romano’s Macaroni Grill offers lower-carbohydrate side dishes and entrees with reduced-fat content.
Chick-fil-A introduced The Trim Trio, which consists of a char-grilled chicken sandwich, a fresh fruit cup and bottled water. They also offer menu items with less than 10 grams of fat and an ice dream dessert that has 160 calories and 4 grams of fat.
Denny’s introduced the Fit Fare, which includes items with 15 grams of fat or less. Nutritional information is on the website.
Max & Erma’s offers low-carb selections and “no-guilt” items that are low in fat and calories. The nutritional information is on the website.
McDonald’s offers numerous salads (beware of the dressing) and white meat chicken choices. Happy Meals offer fresh apple slices as an option. McDonald’s has become very proactive in educating the public about “living healthy through balance in diet and physical activity.”
Red Lobster introduced the Lighthouse Menu, which includes foods that are lower in fat, calories and carbohydrates.
Ruby Tuesday introduced the Smart Eating Initiative with 30 new menu items for the carbohydrate-conscious consumer. In addition, they provide nutritional information on table-top Smart Eating Guides which list calorie, fat, net carbohydrate and dietary fiber contents.
Subway offerd a wide range of healthy items, including their 7 under 6 menu. In addition, Subway has a major obesity-prevention initiative with success story Jared Fogle and has developed an in-school curriculum called “One Body! One Life! Eat Fresh! Get Fit!” developed in conjunction with the Weekly Reader.
Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers introduced Four under 10, which includes four meal combinations with less than 10 grams of fat.
KFC has added several oven-roasted products that are lower in fat and carbohydrates.
Pizza Hut introduced the Fit ‘N Delicious Pizza, which has half the cheese, more tomato sauce and toppings that include lean meats and fresh vegetables.
Taco Bell launched Fresco Style items in the fall of 2003. Fresco Style includes freshly made salad as a substitute for cheese and sauce, providing only 5 calories and 0 grams of fat per serving.
Local Restaurant Analysis
I used to write a monthly KHF column called The Right Bite. In the column I reviewed local restaurants, analyzing their menu choices and giving readers suggestions of specific menu items that were acceptable to eat if they were watching their weight or trying to lower their cholesterol. While I think the column was a valuable tool for our readers, it was simply too time intensive to interview the chef, analyze the menu items and then write the column. In the future, I hope more local restaurants, not just fast food chains, will provide nutritional information directly on the menu so consumers will be better informed. Eating out can fit into one’s diet, but consumers need to be informed so they can balance their calories throughout the day.
Barbara Day, M.S., R.D., C.N., is the publisher and nutrition editor of KHF and a runner, cyclist and hiker.