At dinner a couple evenings ago, after finishing a turkey dinner my husband selected a fresh fruit salad for dessert. We seldom eat dessert so I was surprised when the waiter offered the fresh fruit salad among his featured desserts. My husband is a mild diabetic, so this was a good choice. I then began thinking about how prevalent is this? I have heard and read a lot about restaurants beginning to offer more “healthy” foods and I did some reading and have found that the restaurant industry has been very busy trying to offer what customers say they want on the menu.
I read in a recent survey, done by the restaurant industry, that more than 70 percent of adults said they were trying to eat more healthfully now at restaurants. Thus, the restaurant industry has been actively responding to consumers’ interest in healthful offerings and nutrition information.** Restaurants are offering items that incorporate more produce, lean protein and whole grains, while limiting sodium and trans-fat. Patrons are now looking for nutritional variety as well as delicious food when they dine out. They want more information to help them make smart choices. They may want to know an item’s calorie count, require special meals for specific dietary needs and try to add more produce to their diets. Additional interests that customers have been asking for include more emphasis on children’s nutrition and children’s menus and gluten-free cuisine. Other popular trends include local sourcing, whole grains, fruit/vegetable side dishes for kids, lower-sodium food, lower-calorie items and smaller (or half) portions for a lower price.**
The National Restaurant Association (NRA) has been working with the restaurant industry, food manufacturers and suppliers, policymakers, nutritionists and consumers to help restaurants cater to these consumer demands. Much of what is done on nutrition is spearheaded by the NRA Board of Directors’ Food & Healthy Living Committee.
To help provide nutrition information to diners, the Association advocated for legislation that will soon provide consumers with nutrition information in more than 250,000 chain restaurants all across the country. For standard menu items, the law provides a national standard to make it easier for chain restaurants to provide consistent information about menu items for their guests. In the past decade, many states and municipalities sought to establish menu labeling regulations, so the NRA worked with Congress to pass a federal standard. The NRA then sought a law that set consistent guidelines about how restaurants should present nutrition information to consumers. The law enacted in 2010 applies to restaurant chains with 20 or more locations that operate under the same brand. Those operations must display calories on menus, menu boards and drive-thru signs. They must also provide additional information through websites, brochures or other manners. It also protects restaurant companies that operate in several states from having to produce separate menus to comply with varying state and local laws.
In addition to more healthy menu items, nutrition information and legislation, the industry has been busy in several successful programs. They have received much praise for their Our Kids Live Well program. Kid’s Live Well is a voluntary national program to encourage restaurants to offer healthful children’s menu items. The NRA launched the program in 2011. Participating restaurants offer items that meet strict nutrition criteria based on USDA and the Institute of Medicine’s scientific recommendations. The NRA works with a nutrition-analysis company to help restaurants identify, analyze and promote their healthful kids’ meals. A free geo-coded app connects parents to restaurants that offer healthful children’s items. The NRA and Kids Live-Well restaurants connect with plugged in parents through Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Social media has become an important platform to promote what restaurants are doing to enhance healthful offerings for kids. NRA also works with ‘Partnership for a Healthier America’. The group engages private sector business to help curb childhood obesity. Several restaurant chains have their children’s menus.
Every five years USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services publish new Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The NRA represents the restaurant industry and participates in the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The NRA has been soliciting input from restaurant companies and will present information about restaurants’ role in the food supply system and diet as well as the restaurant industry’s advances in reducing sodium and nutrients of concern and providing more fresh produce, whole grains, and other healthful options. To help, the NRA is offering educational programs. NRA helps restaurants to have the materials needed to train staff on food allergies, information on how to incorporate whole grains and fresh produce into menus and how to find suppliers that offer gluten-free or low sodium products.
The NRA’s ServSafe program is another leading resource for food safety and responsible alcohol service training and certification. This year a new course is being launched to help restaurants serve the 15 million Americans with food allergies with ServSafe Allergens. At restaurant shows, more exhibitors are displaying gluten, dairy and allergen-free items as well as low-sodium, low-sugar, vegetarian and locally sourced food and tips to incorporate more fresh produce into menus.
The restaurant industry has a long standing partnership with the Produce Marketing Association. They work closely to increase fresh produce in restaurant and foodservice meals and examine barriers to and opportunities for greater produce use.
Future challenges the industry says are to educate restaurant members about compliance and educate consumers about balancing the calories they consume, while considering concerns about food allergies and saturated fat and sugar in the diet. Some restaurants publicly promote this work while others make healthful changes to recipes without drawing too much (attention).
NRA also says one of their biggest observation’s this past year has been the growing awareness by consumers about what is on their plates. Consumers want to know where the food comes from, under what conditions is it produced, and the social and environmental impact of food production.
Getting the word out about their efforts, restaurants and the restaurant industry use the internet and social media. Many restaurants provide nutrition information on their websites or on a mobile format. From barbeque restaurants, to ice cream parlors, to steak houses, many are participating and you will see their effort.
Many restaurants post nutrition information online and about 25% of adults say they have looked at that information according to NRA research. However relating to reality, although research says that 50% of consumers seek healthy options at restaurants, less than half of them actually purchase the healthy options – they order instead the thick burger versus the salad.* With continued interest, the numbers may do better.
Also relating to reality, the Industry says three challenges, of equal or greater importance, for the next 3-5 years are:
1 – availability of quality real estate.
2. – overcoming external pressures on cash flow (for example) government regulations.
3. – having a strong enough middle class economy to support the growth of the industry.
In conclusion I would like to say thank-you to the restaurants for their time, efforts and money to provide more healthful choices for consumers. Personel in restaurant work are already very busy and work very hard and to add this extra work to their schedules is appreciated. We know that changing recipes and menus is not easy and is expensive. Again, we, as customers, say thank-you.
In addition, I would like to note that I hope that restaurant menus do not become too “healthy” as many of us like to dine at a restaurant to enjoy a favorite, although not necessarily low calorie or low fat entrée or a favorite “high-calorie” dessert. Also don’t forget to offer some large portions for those who need large portions for a day of hard physical work.”
** National Restaurant Association, On the Menu: Restaurant Nutrition Initiatives 2013 Report