How to Build a Healthy Restaurant Menu

how to build a healthy restaurant menu


Restaurants serve an increasingly important role in improving the nation’s health. According to the National Policy an Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN), over the past 20 years, the percent of daily calories consumed outside the home has nearly doubled. With the rise in dining out, the United States has seen a sharp increase in weight gain, obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Today, 23 million children are overweight or obese in the United States, a number that has quadrupled since 1970 for children ages 6-11. 

While restaurants may not be solely to blame for the current health crisis, they do play an increasingly important part of the solution. By incorporating a larger number of healthy menu items, restaurants have the ability to influence food choices of customers and help direct them to healthier options. Creating a healthy restaurant menu isn’t without its challenges though. Restaurants have slim profit margins and it is no secret that healthier options, like fresh fruits and vegetables, have a significantly short shelf life than frozen French fries or burger patties. There are many strategies that restaurant owners can implement to make their menus healthier while still maintaining decent food cost and profits.

Modern Restaurant Dining

Dining out patterns in the United States have changed significantly over the past 50 years and the reasons that people choose to eat meals outside of their homes are different than they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Families may opt to grab dinner at an Applebee’s or an Olive Garden, because it is convenient and affordable, whereas 30 years ago they would only have dinner out for a special occasion or treat. Americans are busier and more stressed than ever before and convenience often trumps health when it comes to what they buy for food. This has certainly fueled the rise of fast food chains like McDonald's, which, according to its website, now does approximately 70 percent of its business via the drive-thru window. 

Given the new role that restaurants play in the day-to-day lives of most Americans, it is not unjustified by the public to demand healthier menu choices for patrons. But is that a reasonable request for restaurants, which already operate on slim margins? And would people really buy healthier options? After all, if given a choice between a cheeseburger or a green salad, how many people would really choose the salad? While there is no concrete answer to that dilemma, there are a number of promising studies that support the idea that if given the option, with some prompting, many individuals will choose a healthier menu item when eating out. 

Healthy Menus Effect Public Health

In 1955, about 25 percent of a family’s household budget went to food. Today, that number has increased to 55 percent. Eating in restaurants is commonly associated with less healthy food choices and eventual weight gain and possible obesity. Increased consumption of foods that are fried, high in sodium and sugary beverages are common at restaurant chains across the country. Even at those restaurant concepts that have a healthy perception like Chipotle, with its Food With Integrity motto, or Panera and its Food As It Should Be motto, the average menu items contain three or four times the recommended calories for one meal, not mention elevated levels of sodium, fat, and sugar. Public health advocates have been pushing the restaurant industry to offer healthier choices to customers, as a way to empower customers to make healthier choices. Some popular public health strategies for healthy menus include offering nutritional information on menus, smaller portions at reduced prices and including more fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Healthy menus don’t have to be boring. There are lots of ways that restaurants can offer healthy options for customers that are both affordable and tasty.

There has been significant pushback from business organizations, like the National Restaurant Association, when it comes to regulating restaurant menus, citing the burden of cost regulations present for many small businesses. And there has been much criticism of current menu labeling as being ineffective. But none of that changes the fact the US is in a health crisis when it comes food and restaurants have the opportunity to help.

How to Design a Healthy Menu

With or without federal guidelines or policies, any restaurant, regardless of size, location or concept, and opt to incorporate healthier options into their existing menu. In a peer-reviewed 2017 restaurant-based intervention study done in Spain, 16 food establishments at two different family resorts implemented several healthy menu initiatives including providing nutritional and allergen information, increasing the number of healthy food choices available, and training staff on healthy eating and allergens. At the end of the study, the establishments who participated significantly increased offerings of dishes including whole grains, vegetable, and fruit sides, and decreased fried dishes. For the fried dishes that were still offered, oil type was switched from vegetable oil or high oleic acid sunflower oil, for a healthier option. These same strategies can be implemented in the United States.

Along with offering healthier options, the layout of a menu can have an impact on whether or not patrons choose healthier options. According to menu engineer Gregg Rapp, restaurants can use visual cues on menus to highlight items they want to sell. Using photographs of entrees, placing menu items within the “prime real estate” sections of the menu (at the top of columns or within a highlighted box) are two ways to increase sales of specific menu items. Traditionally these strategies have been used to promote the most popular (and often the most food cost friendly) items on a menu, not necessarily the healthiest menu options. Restaurants that want to offer a healthy menu should consider highlighting items that are low fat, smaller portions, contain more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less of the higher fat and higher calorie meals.

Menu size and price placement are other ways for restaurants to encourage customers to choose healthy menu items. According to the Rapp, larger menus hinder the ability to influence customers actions, so if you want to encourage healthy meals, consider limiting the number of unhealthy items on the menu. Being mindful of prices is also important. Lining prices up in one column allows for customers to easily find the most inexpensive item on the menu, increasing the likelihood of buying it. Staggering prices within the menu description makes it harder for customers to zero in on the cheapest option.

Train Your Restaurant Staff to Promote Healthy Menu Items

There are many small things restaurants can do to make their menus healthier, while still keeping food cost down and maintaining a profit. Obviously, a case of fresh strawberries has a significantly shorter shelf life than a box of frozen French fries. This is one of the main obstacles restaurants face when trying to provide healthy options. Making sure that your staff is trained to encourage healthier items, such as when customers ask for suggestions, ensures that the most perishable items are used first. A well-trained kitchen staff is also essential for making a healthy menu affordable. Not only does the head chef need to know how to prepare and present healthy menu items in a pleasing manner, he or she also needs to know how to cross utilize ingredients to decrease food waste. 

Creating a healthy restaurant menu is not hard and does not have to cost restaurants a lot of money. Nor does it require a total brand makeover. Any restaurant, from an independently owned diner to a multi-unit national chain can offer healthy options and implement strategies that help the consumer make healthier choices.