Trending Now: Healthy Dining on Center Stage


As expected, healthy dining has already been in the media spotlight for much of 2012. Even with Menu Labeling in limbo pending the Supreme Court’s ruling on Health Care legislation, restaurants have been moving ahead with calorie disclosure and other healthful improvements to menus. In addition to Michele Obama’s efforts to keep the battle against childhood obesity on the front page and the announcement of new guidelines for school lunches, the National Restaurant Association announced that participation among restaurant brands in its “Kids LiveWell” healthy kids menu program had tripled since launching in July 2011.

All of these news items are keeping healthy dining on the front burner for foodservice operators in all segments of the industry. Much of the challenge they’re facing hinges on how to present healthier choices to consumers successfully. Every core customer is looking for something different when dining out – if indeed they want healthier choices at all. Operators are caught between the “rock” of needing to offer healthy options and show a solid effort to improve their offerings… and the “hard place” of not turning away customers who are looking for their favorite indulgences.

We found some helpful guidance and insight in Mintel’s “Healthy Dining Trends 2012” report, released May 2012. For the full report, contact Mintel here. The following is adapted with permission from that report.

Item 1: Improving Economy Creates Opportunity

The rise in prices and growth in foodservice sales can give restaurants confidence to add BFY (Better For You) items. Since consumers have more disposable income, this is the perfect time to begin introducing healthy menu items.

While consumers state they do not purchase healthy items due to high prices, restaurants can consider adding snack size healthy items or mini-sizes of current favorites at lower prices to get consumers accustomed to ordering healthy items or indulgent items in smaller portions. These items are perfect for value, seasonal, and LTO (spell out acronym in parentheses) menus.

Barilla Insight: Since pasta is already on the menu in most operations, it can be an easy platform to innovate and experiment with new flavor combinations and better-for-you choices. Pasta dishes are comfortable and familiar, and can be a way to make new concepts more approachable.

Item 2: Keeping It Positive with Menu Descriptors

Consumers want healthier items on the menu and need menu descriptors to show them which items are healthy and to what extent. But negative descriptors that tell a consumer what they’re not getting, like low-fat, low-calorie, etc., also leads consumers to expect low taste and satisfaction. The right word choices can indicate item quality and make the difference in whether the item is ordered. In general, consumers respond better to healthy positioning when put in a broad and positive context with taste appeal. Positive wording that describes health benefits to foods like wholesome and fresh are a smart strategy. On the kids’ menu front, restaurants can increase the amount of description they provide, using positive words like natural, whole grains, and lean, which will appeal to parents who still order for their children.

The one major exception to this trend is in calorie counts. With the calorie disclosure laws as well as restaurants using the measure as a general benchmark, consumers cling to these criteria to determine healthfulness. A number of “Under XXX Calories” menus entered the market a few years ago in casual dining and have since spread to quick service, fast casual, and coffeehouses. The appeal of these types of menus is that even though calories are communicated, restaurants can still market flavor.

Figure 1: Ingredient and preparation criteria for healthy meals, by age, February 2012

Base: internet users aged 18+ who have eaten at a restaurant in the past month

“Which of the following are the most important ingredient or preparation criteria you consider when choosing a ‘healthy meal’ at a restaurant?”

Source: Mintel

Marketing Healthy Items in Action: Applebee’s

Applebee’s has adjusted its Under 550 Calorie Menu by removing some dishes to make room for three new additions (see below), bringing the total to five lower calorie options. All items contain less than 550 calories and start at $9.99. What’s notable is that the menu descriptions focus on freshness, vegetables, flavor and appetite appeal; and not at all on “diet” words like light, skinny or low-calorie. .

•          Sizzling Asian Shrimp & Broccoli: Spiced shrimp and mixed veggies in sweet and spicy sauce, served over rice ($10.49)

•          Roasted Garlic Sirloin: Garlic sirloin, sautéed onions, Portobello mushroom cap with creamed spinach ($11.99)

•          Sizzling Chili Lime Chicken: Grilled chicken in spicy chili sauce, with Asian style vegetables, served in a sizzling skillet ($9.99)

Barilla Insight: Calling attention to items with simple and positive health benefits, like Barilla® Whole Grain or PLUS Pasta, allows you to get credit for offering healthy items and still focus on flavor.

Item 3: Using Customization to Let Consumers Make a Healthier Choice

Customization has become an expectation for foodservice patrons across all segments, creating headaches and opportunities alike for operators. The good news is this trend can be applied to healthy dining.

Each demographic group looks for different health claims on the menu, and places varying importance upon them. For instance, men are generally more interested in cholesterol levels, while women look at fat content, and young consumers are more interested in protein, while older consumers look at sodium levels (see below).

  • Only 17% of consumers look to calories as a primary driver for ordering healthy items at restaurants.
  • Women (34%) are most concerned about fat content, while 27% of men look at cholesterol when deciding on healthy items.
  • Fat content is a concern for about three in 10 diners of all ages.
  • While the young favor high protein meal choices, middle-aged consumers are concerned with calories, fiber, and probiotics, and older consumers seek low sodium and cholesterol choices.

Source: Mintel

There are primarily three ways consumers are able to customize at restaurants. They can select pre-determined meal components, choose from ingredients and preparation methods, or make items themselves. Efforts by restaurants to introduce healthy options allow consumers to decide how healthy or decadent they want their meal to be, giving them free rein to take small steps toward better health.

One strategy restaurants can take is to create menu items that speak to the core audience. For example, if one of the core groups at a restaurant is young males, then it could introduce an item that is low in cholesterol and high in protein, giving that group exactly what they are looking for in an item.

Barilla Insight: Pasta is perhaps one of the most customized and customizable entrée platforms around. Our partners have been doing this in non-commercial and fast-casual settings for years, allowing guests to pick their protein, sauces and pasta shapes to create their own dishes without slowing down operations or risking the bottom line.