The Picture of Good Health

Diners want options that sneak in good nutrition without sacrificing taste or value

The post “Super Size Me” era is officially here: Rather than seeking mega extra value meal deals at restaurants, diners are opting for reasonable portions of healthier fare.

“Consumers are hungry for restaurant meals that won’t expand their waistlines,” says Hank Cardello, author of  “Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat and How the Food Industry Can Fix It.” “Operators need to respond by reducing the number of calories they sell per person.  The numbers show that if you don’t serve customers looking for healthier options, you risk a decline in (sales).” 

The “numbers” he’s talking about come from a report released earlier this year by the Hudson Institute, a think tank where Cardello is a senior fellow and director of its Obesity Solutions Initiative. 

Titled “Lower-Calorie Foods: It’s Just Good Business,” the report analyzed 21 of the largest quick-service and sit-down restaurant chains (think McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Applebee’s) and found those that increased servings of lower-calorie items generated a 5.5 percent increase in same-store sales from 2006 to 2011, compared with a 5.5 percent decline among chains selling fewer lower-calorie servings. 

Lower-calorie food servings increased by 500 million, Cardello says, while traditional servings saw a decline of 1.3 billion from 2007 to 2011. 

Restaurants need to connect with diners who have been given a reality check on America’s obesity crisis and want healthier options when they dine out, Cardello adds. “It’s a different era now and it’s time for new rules,” he says.

Healthy But Tasty

Those new rules boil down to offering lower calorie, well-balanced menu items alongside the popular high-calorie ones, which still bring in plenty of customers. The trick for this dining segment, Cardello says, is not labeling them as “diet” foods,  which can be a turn-off. “Give me something tasty—just find a way to extract calories from it,” he says. “Customers don’t care how you do it. They just want you to figure it out.”

John Keller, the executive chef at Dinner on Ludlow, an American bistro on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, says his duty as a chef is to make any food he serves taste good. “Just because it’s healthy doesn’t mean you have to compromise taste,” he says. 

Keller points to his Caesar salad as an item that supports health without skimping on taste. “I substitute kale for traditional Romaine to boost vitamin and mineral levels,” he says. “But I always do my best to offer indulgences as well as very healthy counterparts. I give guests the flexibility to choose whatever side they desire, from healthier broccoli with garlic to a hearty, indulgent macaroni and cheese.”

The word “healthy” is no longer a restaurant taboo. “I think we are becoming a more health-conscious society,” Keller says. “Healthy for me means doing my part in sourcing quality ingredients, knowing where food comes from.”

The Westin Resort & Casino in Aruba highlights its menu’s healthier options with a  sailboat logo. “It’s all about surrounding yourself with fruits and vegetables, grains—such as quinoa, wheat berries and barley—greens and salads, the right oils and fats,” says Matthew Boland, the resort’s executive chef. “You can come up with so many new ideas that will please diners.”

A Modified Approach to moderation

For operators worried their customers still expect large portions, Cardello suggests looking at their overall  “calorie footprint.” 

“Instead of trying to micromanage individual menu items, push to deliver fewer calories per customer overall,” he says. “This way, customers leave having consumed fewer calories, which is the overarching goal.” 

Chef-driven restaurants are taking a holistic approach toward the healthier dining segment. “The high-end diner today wants quality, flavor, nutrition and presentation,” says Lee Morcus, owner of Figue Mediterranean in La Quinta, Calif. “They want it all out of their food.”

As a result, value is not necessarily about getting the most food, but the best. The key is dishes that are “sourced, prepared and served with passion, love and respect for the ingredients,” he says.

Judy Sutton Taylor is a Chicago-based editor and writer who always looks for the healthiest menu items, and sometimes orders them, too.

MASS APPEAL

Take a cue from restaurants connecting with health conscious consumers: 

Sbarro recently introduced a “Skinny Slice” of pizza featuring roasted peppers, portobellos, caramelized onions and a sprinkling of mozzarella and Romano cheeses. Each slice comes in at 270 calories, compared to 460 for the traditional cheese pizza. 

Sonic Drive-In is offering freshly brewed green iced teas, along with several sugar free mix-ins.

McAlister’s Deli offers a regular selection of low-calorie sandwiches, salads and soups, which evolved from a successful limited-time offering.

Four Ways to Go Lean 

1. Offer popular, high-calorie menu items in smaller portions and price them to generate a comparable margin. The Cheesecake Factory offers a Skinnylicious menu printed on long, thin paper, which includes dishes such as crispy crab bites and “skinny” cocktails.

2. Push low calorie beverages like diet soda with the same profit margins as their high calorie alternatives.

3. Use healthier cooking oils (such as omega-9 sunflower blends) that help fried foods stay tasty.

4. Take a “stealth health” approach to promoting  lower calorie fare by grouping items and featuring them more prominently. Just refrain from using the words “diet” or “healthier.”