Nearly one-third of the meals that Americans eat are prepared away from home. As commutes get longer, schedules get busier, and families are increasingly exhausted, the need for convenient meals often overrides concerns of health and expenses. The modern American lifestyle is finally catching up with us, though. According to a 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 71% of U.S. adults are overweight or obese.
Public health officials have long targeted restaurants in the obesity epidemic, mandating everything from posting calorie counts on drive-thru menus to offering milk in place of soda in children’s meals. Despite recent trends in even fast-food restaurants offering healthy menu options, the obesity epidemic continues. This raises the question: Do healthy food items really sell? Will adding these to your menu boost your sales and the health of your customers?
The Rise of Obesity and Dining Out
Obesity in America has increased as restaurants—fast-food or otherwise—have proliferated. Before the 1990s, restaurants were largely reserved for special occasions or perhaps a weekly 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 out infrequently. With the rise of family-casual dining in the '90s, that all began to change. As dual-income families became more common, more consumers sought the convenience of dining out.
Restaurant chains like Olive Garden, Applebee’s, and the Ninety Nine catered to the growing middle class, offering moderately priced meals and children’s menus. This was great for parents slogging through long commutes from suburbs to cities and facing weekends and evenings packed 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.
According to a 2016 study by the Journal of Academy and Nutrition Dietetics, an average restaurant meal is around 1,200 calories. Sit-down restaurants can actually be more unhealthy than fast-food ones. Consider that the average American eats out four to five times a week, then add in other convenient junk food snacks, and the number of calories the average adult consumes shoots well past the recommended daily amount of 2000. Over time, this adds extra pounds and problems like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
How Unhealthy Are Most Menus?
According to Eat This, Not That, a healthy restaurant menu item would incorporate vegetables and whole grains, while also limiting sodium and keeping calories under 600. Considering that some of the most beloved menu items in America fall short of these recommendations, it's no wonder that restaurants continue to come under fire. The Cheesecake Factory’s infamous Pasta Carbonara with Chicken packs a whopping 2,340 calories, 70 grams of saturated fat, and 4,030 milligrams of sodium.
Even menu items that a perceived as healthy can pack more calories than a Big Mac. Applebee's Crispy Chicken Tender Salad delivers 1,180 calories, 79 grams of fat, and 2,370 milligrams of sodium. Even those restaurants with better reputations than fast-food joints or big chains aren’t above reproach. When it comes to calorie counts, fast-casual chains like Panera and Chipotle, both of which promote the freshness of their ingredients, aren’t any better than McDonald's. A Chipotle burrito with carnitas, white rice, black beans, fajita veggies, roasted chili-corn salsa, romaine, sour cream, cheese, and guacamole contains 1,425 calories, 67 grams of fat (23.5 grams saturated fat), and 2,680 milligrams of sodium. A bowl of baked potato soup from Panera only contains 390 calories, but within those calories is 13 grams of saturated fat—100% of the daily recommendation for an average diet.
Restaurants looking to offer healthy options will need to pay careful attention to ingredients and portion sizes.
Will People Buy Healthy Menu Items?
Restaurant industry lobbyists 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 the popularity of Chipotle and Panera and other fast-casual chains shows. Fresh ingredients won't mean healthy if they come in huge portions laden with extra fat and sodium.
Often, though, consumers make unhealthy choices because they don't know their options. The unhealthy item is frequently the only option presented at the time of purchase. Most consumers won’t ask for modifications or substitutions, especially at a restaurant chain.
Some groups are trying to change that. The Blue Zones Project, a community well-being improvement initiative focused on environmental, 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 Project-certified restaurant is to make unhealthy choices less convenient. A salad will replace fries as the default side with every sandwich. Of course, 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?
Cost prevents one of the biggest barriers to restaurants offering healthier menu options. Fast-food chains like McDonald's have made their fortune by offering food with a long shelf life, which tends to be less healthy. As pointed out in The New Yorker, even if every restaurant in America decided to drop the fries and embrace kale and watermelon radish salads, the U.S. 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 subsidies, making it hard for smaller farms to compete.
But some restaurant chains are 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. Menu items feature farm-fresh ingredients that are a mix of sustainable, organic, and environmentally friendly choices. To meet the demand of their plant-based menus, 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 they can’t start offering healthier options alongside pub fare and pasta 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 as healthy are a red flag 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.
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, or low sodium. Also, placing healthy menu items on the prime real estate of a menu—the corners or at the top 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 customers ask them for a recommendation, servers can promote a (secretly) healthy item rather than the steak or burger.
Change is in the air when it comes to the American dining experience. 2017 marked the first time since 1970 that McDonald's closed more restaurants than it opened. 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—one with smaller portions, less fat, and more vegetables—versus a perceived healthy option, 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.