Can Produce Provide Both Comfort And Health on American Menus?

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the Menu

Originally printed in the May 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Unless you have been living under a rock the past year, you know the restaurant industry suffered during the pandemic. The National Restaurant Association (NRA) 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry report shares many disturbing statistics, including the loss of 2.5 million jobs, 110,000 restaurants, and $240 billion in projected sales in 2020. What was supposed to be a record-breaking year with nearly $900 billion in estimated sales across all categories of foodservice turned into one of the worst years.

While the industry is expected to show double-digit sales growth in 2021, most experts agree it will take many years to fully recover. As restaurants are reopening to varying degrees across the country, operators are looking at every opportunity to attract diners and boost check averages. Consumer insights from NRA and other sources are driving innovation that is shaping menus and creating new trends.

One of the more startling consumer insights from the NRA is the fact that in its nationwide survey of 1,000 adults, fielded in December 2020, an equal percentage of consumers (38%) say they would be more likely to choose restaurants that offer more comfort foods as well as ones that offer a greater selection of more healthful menu offerings. Are these two mutually exclusive, or can produce help restaurants provide both?

Focusing on boosting health through food gives people a sense of control in a world where so much is currently out of our control.

Most adults already know produce offers a wide variety of potential nutrition and health benefits, but people aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that just one in ten Americans meets his or her daily recommended intake. The 2020 Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) State of the Plate report shows that between 2015 and 2020, overall fruit and vegetable eating occasions declined three percent. This lower frequency of intake corresponds with lower intake in overall volume.

One bright spot in the PBH findings is that vegetable eating occasions away from home have increased since 2015, particularly in quick service restaurants. This data excluded French fries. When consumers in this study were asked what motivated them to eat vegetables, the sentiment “It’s a favorite!” was the top response. When restaurants find ways to offer vegetables that make them a patron’s favorite, that can drive repeat restaurant visits and more frequent vegetable consumption.

So, what makes a fruit or vegetable a comfort food? Many people associate comfort foods with their childhood, recalling days when stress and anxiety were foreign feelings. Others find comfort in foods and beverages that promote health and wellness. Focusing on boosting health through food gives people a sense of control in a world where so much is currently out of our control.

Here are five ways produce can meet the dual needs for comfort and health on menus:

  1. Healthy eating habits are most pervasive earlier in the day. Adding more fruit and vegetable-based menu items to breakfast menus, especially hand-held items that hold up well while traveling to work, can provide comfort to health seekers.
  2. NRA research shows that the desire for comfort as well as health is greatest among Baby Boomers. Menu innovation does not need to be cutting-edge or obscure for this age group. Operators can bring back comfort classics with a new better-for-you twist with options like mashed potatoes made from newer varieties that offer creamy textures and buttery taste without the addition of cream or butter.
  3. Datassential research shows consumers are seeking produce items they believe boost immunity, including dark leafy greens and citrus. Combine the two ingredient categories to produce smoothies and other beverages that provide comfort from knowing you’re getting your fruits and veggies in a fun, approachable way.
  4. Datassential also provides insights into what we miss most in restaurant dining, and burgers top the list. Smart operators can use burgers as a gateway to innovation that’s familiar with a twist by offering blended burgers (e.g., The Mushroom Blend Burger) with produce-centric toppings that deliver appealing flavors, textures and colors such as creamy avocado spread and roasted red peppers.
  5. Meals served in bowls are comforting. Consider a bowl of steaming pho with aromatic herbs, a whole grain bowl with the diner’s choice of protein and an assortment of thoughtfully prepared vegetables, or simply a creamy vegetable soup where potatoes or cauliflower provide the creamy texture.

As the restaurant industry works on its recovery, there’s a crucial role for produce to play in all of this. I’ll look forward to sharing more insights on how restaurants are providing comfort and health in future columns.

Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. She is consultant for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, a member of the Texas A&M AgriLife External Advisory Board and a member of the Bayer Vegetable Seeds Horticultural Advisory Council. You can learn more about her business at, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on social media @AmyMyrdalMiller