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.
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.
Is a healthy menu realistic?
Cost is one of the biggest barriers to restaurants offering healthier menu options. Fast-food chains have made their fortune by offering food with a long shelf life, which tends to be less healthy. Unfortunately, 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. Menu items feature farm-fresh ingredients that are a mix of sustainable, organic, and environmentally friendly choices, and often are locally sourced. To meet the demand of plant-based menus, smaller restaurants have set up extensive local farm networks and offer rotating menus 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 BBQ ribs. But can an average independent restaurant offer healthy menu items that actually sell? According to Brian Wansink, an investigative journalist for 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. People want to know what’s in their food, how it was raised, and where it came from. Healthy fast food is no longer an oxymoron and completely attainable—even for small mom and pop establishments.