Should Restaurants Offer Healthy Menu Options?

Does Healthy Sell?

Do healthy menu items sell?
••• Tookapic via Pixabay

Nearly one-third of meals eaten by the average American are prepared away from home. As commutes get longer, schedules get busier and families more exhausted than ever, the need for convenient meals often overrides concerns of health and expense. The cost of the modern American lifestyle’s food choices is finally catching up with us, though. Today 68 percent of adults are overweight or obese in the United States. Restaurants have long been a target of public health officials to take more action in the obesity epidemic, mandating everything from posted calorie counts on drive-through menus to offering milk in place of soda in children’s meals.

Despite the gains over the past eight years, with more healthy options than ever available across menu concepts, the obesity epidemic continues, begging the questions do healthy items really sell? Or is it a waste of time and money to force the public to eat food they don’t want?

The Rise of Obesity and Dining Out

There is an undeniable correlation between the rise of obesity in America and the rise of restaurants. Before the 1990s, restaurants were reserved largely for special occasions or perhaps a once-a-week treat. Think pizza or Chinese food on Friday night or a birthday celebration at your favorite little Italian eatery. Most families, regardless of household income, ate a bulk of their meals at home. That all began to change in the 1990s with the rise of family casual dining. By the 1990s, with many families headed by two working parents, shifting consumer patterns brought an increase in the number of people eating out.

Restaurant chains like Olive Garden, Applebee’s, and 99 catered to the growing middle class, offering moderately priced meals and children’s menus. This was great for parents who were slogging long commutes from the suburbs to the cities and whose weekends and evenings were consumed with sports practices and other family obligations. While family casual chains offered a nice dining atmosphere that mimicked eating at home, the food was unlike most home cooked meals. It was generally higher in fat, sodium, sugar and calories than what Mom or Dad would make.

An average meal at a restaurant (fast food or sit-down) is around 800-850 calories. Throw in some other convenient treats like chips, cookies, soda and an ice cream and the amount of calories the average adult consumes is bumped up to well over the recommended daily amount of 2000. Over time this adds extra pounds and problems like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

What Does a Healthy Menu Item Look Like?

According to Eat This, Not That a healthy restaurant menu item would incorporate vegetables, whole grains, limit salt and keep calories under 600. Considering that some of the most beloved menu items in American fall short these recommendations, it no wonder that restaurants continue to come under fire for people’s unhealthy lifestyle. The Cheesecake Factory’s infamous Pasta Carbonara with Chicken packs a whopping 2,291 calories, 81 g saturated fat, and 1,628 mg sodium.  Even menu items that a perceived as health (i.e. salads) can pack more calories than a Big Mac.

Chick-fil-A Cobb Salad with Avocado Lime Ranch Dressing has 740 calories, 54 g fat (12 g saturated fat), 1,890 mg sodium.  Even those restaurants with better reputations than fast food joints, aren’t above reproach. Fast casual chains like Panera and Chipotle, both of which promote the freshness of their ingredients, aren’t any better than McDonalds when it comes to calories counts. Chipolte’s Chorizo Burrito with White Rice, Black Beans, Fajita Veggies, Roasted Chili-Corn Salsa, Romaine, Sour Cream, Cheese and Guac contains 1,515 calories, 73 g fat (25.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), and 3,040 mg sodium.

A bowl of potato soup from Panera only contains 270 calories, but within those calories is 12 grams of saturated fat — 71 percent of the daily recommendation.   

Will People Buy Healthy Menu Items?

Restaurant industry lobbyist like the National Restaurant Association and big fast food chains insist that restaurants sell what people want. It’s true; nobody is clamoring for carrot sticks or seltzer water. And even when consumers say they want healthy options, their actions don’t always match up, as seen with the popularity of Chipotle and Panera and other fast casual chains. Fresh ingredients don’t mean healthy if it comes in huge portions, laden with extra fat and sodium.  When given the option of healthy versus unhealthy, most people opt for the unhealthy — not always because they think it tastes better.

Often times the unhealthy item is the only option presented at the time of purchase. Most consumers won’t ask for modifications or substitutions, especially at a restaurant chain. But soon they might not even have to ask.

The Blue Zones Project, a community well-being improvement  focusing on environment, policy, and social changes, demonstrates that restaurants can play an important role in the health and well being of residents. One of the core tenants of a Blue Zone certified restaurant menu is to de-convenience unhealthy choices. Instead automatically offering French fries with every sandwich, it will come with a salad. Customers can still request fries. But time and again when the healthy option is the easy option, people will eat it.

Are Healthy Menus Realistic?

One of the biggest issues with offering healthy food choices is cost. Fast food chains like McDonalds have made their fortune by offering food with a long shelf life. As pointed out in Can Fast Food Get Healthy, from The New Yorker, even if every restaurant in America decided to drop the fries and embrace kale and watermelon radishes, the US lacks the agricultural infrastructure to support that kind of dietary shift. Big farm crops like soybeans (for frying oil), corn (for high fructose corn syrup) and grain (livestock feed) receive millions of tax breaks and other government handouts, making it hard for smaller farms to compete, price wise.

  But some restaurant chains are embracing buying locally and seeing big success. Lyfe Kitchen and Sweetgreens, are both dedicated to offering healthy, affordable fare with many meals clocking in at less than 600 calories (actually all the meals from Lyfe Kitchen are 600 calories or less).  Menu items feature farm fresh ingredients that are a mix of sustainable, organic and environmentally friendly. To meet the demand of their plant based menu, both chains have set up extensive local farm networks and offer a rotating menu based on seasonal availability.


How to Build a Healthy Restaurant Menu

Not every restaurant is going to abandon its current menu to offer kale smoothies and sprouted bread with organic carrot butter. That doesn’t mean that they can’t start offering healthier options along side pub fare and pastas with cream sauce. But can an average independent restaurant offer healthy menu items that actually sell? According to Brian Wansink, in an article in The Atlantic, items labeled with the term ‘healthy’ are a red light for consumers. Healthy menu options have become synonymous with a boring, tasteless dining experience, which is the exact opposite of why people eat out in the first place.

Even if they are in a hurry, they still want flavor. If I wanted to eat something boring, I’d have just stayed home and had some carrot sticks with noodles and butter.

To promote healthy items in a less obvious way there are many steps restaurants can take to build a better menu, including using terms like succulent, delicious, and fresh in place of healthy, low fat, low sodium. Also placing healthy menu items in the prime real estate of a menu — the corners and at the tops and bottom of columns, makes them stand out more. Staff can also help move healthy menu items, just as they would if they were upselling drinks and desserts. When asked what their favorite dish is or for a recommendation, they could promote a (secretly) healthy item rather than the steak or burger.


2017 marked the first time since 1970 that McDonalds will close more restaurants than it opens. Change is in the air when it comes to the American dining experience. People want to know what’s in their food, how it was raised and where it came from. The question remains though, when presented with a truly healthy option, versus a perceived healthy option — one with smaller portions, less fat and more vegetables, will consumers buy it? Because it is the consumer, not public health advocates, that will make the healthy option the only option on menus across America.