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How healthy menus bring diners in the door

As the healthy dining trend continues to gain steam, restaurants are not only competing with each other for consumers’ dining dollars, they also need to consider the growing amount of health-conscious eaters who choose to prepare food at home in order to have control over ingredients and portion size.

Offering a healthy menu with customizable options can help restaurants win these customers back and attract new ones. Crafting a healthy menu doesn’t have to mean a total overhaul, according to Joy Dubost, director of nutrition and healthy living at the National Restaurant Association. Dubost said honoring special requests to put dressing on the side or omit bread or chips can go a long way towards making customers feel as if their healthy eating needs are being met. “Along the lines of customization, I think sometimes people are afraid to either request or ask, and I would encourage folks when they go into the restaurant to ask for a special request or modification to what’s listed because a lot of times that can be accommodated,” she said.

Menu labeling is another way to accommodate patrons who are aiming to eat healthy, whether that means listing calorie counts for each menu item or placing an icon next to dishes that are “heart healthy” or gluten-free. While many restaurants will soon be required to list calorie counts under the new health care law, Dubost suggests that even those restaurants that won’t be required by law to include them should consider adding calorie counts and other nutrition information. She cited a study published inĀ The International Journal of Hospitality Management that found consumers are more likely to choose restaurants that provide this information. “We know that that’s where consumers now are going towards, they want that information there so they can make the decision that’s right for them,” she said.

Listing calorie counts next to dishes doesn’t mean that diners will always go for the options with the lowest number. Many people still consider restaurants to be a place where they can splurge, and even healthy eaters can still indulge if they plan ahead, Dubost said.

“If you’re going to go for a more indulgent, heartier meal, one of the ways to do that is to go with what the restaurant is offering you and take a portion home for the next day, or budget your calories throughout the day so that when it comes time for the restaurant you’ve kind of factored that part of it in. I always tell folks as a dietician to always go with a plan. So a lot of times its going on the restaurant’s website, you can see what they offer and know what you’re going to order if you’re trying to be more healthful … and then stick to your guns and order those types of options.”

Even desserts can fit into a healthy lifestyle, as long as portion sizes are kept small and diners know what they are getting. “[There is] this emergence of these desserts in little shot glasses, which I think are great because it gives people the opportunity to indulge without over indulging,” Dubost said.

No matter what steps restaurants take to accommodate health-minded consumers, its important to remember that taste is still paramount.

“It’s got to taste good … We still have to overcome that barrier because people don’t always equate health with good taste,” Dubost said. “Put the time and the investment into working with the chef to create that culinary experience for the consumer, even though they’re trying to eat healthier. A lot of times that can just be the flavoring of it — adding more spices and herbs — and the presentation of it can really go a long way.”

Joy Dubost will moderate an education session at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago entitled “Create A Healthier Plate for your Menu” on May 18 at 10 a.m. Check out the full show schedule for other education sessions covering health & nutrition and other industry topics.