Healthy Eating in Restaurants: Barriers and Opportunities

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the Menu

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the MenuIn mid-February I attended the‭ ‬Sacramento Business Journal‭ ‬Healthcare Leadership Forum‭, ‬where a panel of chief executives of major hospitals‭, ‬insurance companies and managed care organizations discussed the future‭ ‬of healthcare‭. ‬Despite the uncertainty created by all the‭ ‬“repeal and repair/replace”‭ ‬talk in Washington‭, ‬D.C‭., ‬this group quickly reached consensus on one important issue‭: ‬if we’re going to control healthcare costs in this country‭, ‬we need to put more emphasis on prevention‭.‬

As a registered dietitian/nutritionist who works closely with many major foodservice leaders‭, ‬I started thinking about ways to shift the consumer mindset when it comes to eating healthy in restaurants‭. ‬On average‭, ‬we eat about 20‭ ‬percent of our meals in restaurants today‭; ‬yet we still think of eating out as a‭ ‬“treat‭.‬”

Datassential‭, ‬a leading foodservice market research firm in Chicago‭, ‬recently conducted a consumer study on behalf of members of‭ ‬The Culinary Institute of America Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative that focused on determining drivers and barriers to healthy eating in quick-service and fast-casual restaurants‭. ‬Collaborative members include culinary and nutrition professionals from top‭ ‬chain restaurants and contract foodservice companies in the United States‭. ‬Collectively‭, ‬Collaborative members feed more than 100‭ ‬million Americans every day‭.‬

Members of the Collaborative wanted data to help them identify what could compel their customers to more often order a more healthful‭, ‬better-for-you choice‭. ‬Here’s what they discovered‭.‬

Nearly half of people who eat in a quick-service restaurant‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬QSR‭, ‬think McDonald’s‭, ‬Taco Bell‭, ‬Subway‭, ‬Chick-Fil-A‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬at least once a week earn less than‭ $‬50,000‭ ‬per year‭. ‬When they are looking for healthy menu‭ ‬options‭, ‬they need affordable options‭. ‬Their primary reason for choosing a QSR is to satisfy hunger‭, ‬followed by getting great‭-‬tasting food‭. ‬Health is not a driver for most people visiting a QSR‭; ‬40‭ ‬percent say they go because they have a craving for a treat‭, ‬and they know what they’ll order before they get to the restaurant‭.‬

Nearly 40‭ ‬percent of people who eat at a fast-casual restaurant‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬FCR‭, ‬think Chipotle‭, ‬Panera Bread‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬at least once a week earn‭ ‬less than‭ $‬50,000‭ ‬per year‭. ‬They too report their primary reason for choosing this style of restaurant is to satisfy hunger and‭ ‬get great-tasting food‭, ‬but they are willing to spend slightly more to get food that is perceived to be fresher‭, ‬better quality‭ ‬and more healthful‭. ‬Any restaurant that communicates messages about‭ ‬“freshness”‭ ‬and displays lots of vegetables is perceived to be a better‭, ‬healthier option‭.‬

If we are going to control healthcare costs in this country, we need to put more emphasis on prevention.

When survey respondents were asked what enables them to make a healthier choice‭, ‬many reported their intent is stronger earlier‭ ‬in the day‭. ‬This may present opportunities to feature more produce at breakfast‭, ‬but operators need to pay attention to sensory‭ ‬cues‭. ‬Appealing menu descriptors‭, ‬beautiful photos of healthy items on menus and menu boards‭, ‬nutrition information and enticing‭ ‬aromas are all cues that can motivate a diner to make a more healthful choice‭. ‬The Datassential research shows that Millennials‭, ‬people with incomes greater than‭ $‬75K and diners eating early in the day‭ (‬7-9‭ ‬a.m‭.) ‬are most likely to be persuaded to eat healthy by menu language‭, ‬photos‭, ‬nutrition data and aroma cues‭.‬

When asked what the top barriers to eating healthy at a QSR or FCR‭, ‬the top responses were eating out is a treat‭, ‬it’s not a time I want to eat healthy‭; ‬cost of healthy options‭; ‬and too few healthy options available‭. ‬Of these‭, ‬the biggest opportunity for menu developers is to provide a greater variety of healthy options featuring fresh ingredients‭, ‬especially vegetables‭.‬‭ ‬But health-seeking diners want more than salads‭.‬

Datassential also looked at factors that create the perception of healthy‭. ‬The list includes the ability to customize orders‭, ‬freshly prepared food‭, ‬and the use of lots of vegetables and lean proteins‭. ‬Freshness is the Number One cue that something is healthy‭, ‬but this can mean fresh produce‭, ‬as well as freshly baked bread or fresh‭, ‬never frozen‭, ‬ground beef‭.‬

What do people who want to eat healthy tend to order at QSRs and FCRs‭? ‬The top responses were salads‭, ‬sushi‭, ‬soup‭, ‬bowls and cold sandwiches‭. ‬All these menu items can prominently feature vegetables‭. ‬But let’s not limit healthy menu innovation to these categories‭. ‬If we’re going to put more emphasis on prevention in this country‭, ‬we need to give people more opportunities to make a healthy choice‭.‬‭ ‬And that choice needs to be a competitive choice‭, ‬one that is more appealing and on par price-wise with the conventional‭, ‬less‭ ‬healthful option‭.‬

We need to create healthier menu items that meet diners’‭ ‬tendency to think of eating out as a‭ ‬“treat‭.‬”‭ ‬Someone else is doing the cooking‭, ‬someone else is doing the dishes and I can feel good knowing I just ate something delicious‭,‬‭ ‬as well as healthful‭.‬

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. Learn more about her business at Follow her insights on food and flavor issues on Twitter @AmyMyrdalMiller.