Americans may not have the most pristine reputation when it comes to eating healthily, but that may soon change as consumers are increasingly basing what to eat on healthfulness. As the demand for healthy food rises in and out of the home, the restaurant industry must adapt to fit the times.

Healthy Habits on the Rise

According to the 2014 Food & Health Survey published by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), healthfullness is the third leading driver of food and beverage selection, influencing 71 percent of consumers. And this shift towards better nutrition is not passive at all as the same survey concluded that at least three out of five Americans spend some time planning each of their meals.This healthfulness movement does not only apply to what is being eaten within the household, but extends to what people are looking for when choosing where to eat out. Research conducted by the National Restaurant Association (NRA) shows that nearly 75 percent of consumers are more likely to dine at restaurants offering healthful items, and when ordering, half of Americans at least sometimes use nutrition information to decide what to have.

A Few Changes

So what does this mean for the restaurant industry? It means boosting nutrition while maintaining taste. To help, Deanne Brandstetter, vice president of nutrition and wellness for the Compass Group North America, offers a few easy ways to improve the nutrition content of your menu items:

  • Increase produce on the plate. Fruit and vegetables have a huge water content, are low in calories, lower in sodium, and have no saturated fat in their natural state. The more produce you place on a plate, the less you need of other items. The challenge: making produce as interesting and craveable as your proteins.
  • Add umami with mushrooms. Mix ground mushrooms into ground animal protein to decrease calories, sodium and fat and increase fiber, selenium and Vitamin D. Let customers know about it. They’re no longer into “stealth health,” Brandstetter says. They want to know that you’re making your menu items more nutritious – and how you’re doing it.
  • Reduce sodium. Use salt as a “finisher,” rather than in every step of the preparation. Or, explore new salt replacements. In response to restaurant and consumer demand, food manufacturers are developing innovative, new products to reduce sodium. One example: diamond-shaped salt crystals, which are hollow inside and have more surface area than traditional salt crystals.
  • Improve carbohydrate quality. Use whole grains in pasta, pilaf, risotto and other dishes. Experiment with grains other than whole wheat, such as millet, quinoa and spelt. Get ideas and resources from the Whole Grains Council.
  • Create interesting, lower-calorie beverages. Offer house-made, healthful beverages, such as ginger water, sparkling water with fruit or tea infused with fruit or herbs. Serve juice made with fruit and vegetable purees.
  • Consider strategic calorie design. Create plates with a limited number of calories. For example, if you are designing a plate with no more than 600 calories, make sure every element builds flavor, satisfaction and craveability.
  • Rethink desserts. Instead of serving a large slice of cheesecake with a strawberry garnish, create a miniature cheesecake surrounded by strawberries. “The CIA calls it the ‘dessert flip,” Brandstetter says. Customers appreciate tiny dessert portions rather than low-calorie versions, she says.
  • Allow for indulgence. But on a small scale. Instead of a platter of all fried seafood, serve a few fried shrimp and many, many more grilled shrimp on skewers. “It balances it out a little bit,” she says.

How are you making strides to improve the nutrient content of your menus? Let us know here, or @gosirvo.