Healthier and more sustainable restaurant options

Chefs report that restaurant diners are increasingly seeking menu choices that offer locally-grown produce, locally-sourced meat and seafood and food that is produced in a manner that is environmentally sustainable.

In the restaurant business, staying atop of food trends is not only important; it may even determine whether or not a restaurant stays in business. Understanding trends is important to restaurants because when diners’ tastes change and a restaurant’s menu doesn’t, empty tables result.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) provides a perspective on how trends differ from fads. NRA’s website reports, “True trends—as opposed to temporary fads—show the evolution of the wider shifts of our modern society over time, and focus on the provenance of various food and beverage items, unique aspects of how they are prepared and presented, as well as the dietary profiles of those meals.”

The NRA has just released its 2014 Culinary Forecast. It surveyed nearly 1,300 professional chefs this fall, asking them assign the term “hot trend,” “perennial favorite” or “yesterday’s news” to 258 items. Of the top 10 trends, six represent local and sustainable themes. The top 3 are locally-sourced meats and seafood, locally-grown produce and environmental sustainability. Others following this theme that placed in the top 10 are hyper-local sourcing (e.g. restaurant gardens), sustainable seafood and farm/estate branded items.

The NRA has also responded to demand for healthier children’s menu items. The Kids LiveWell program is offered by participating restaurants. Children’s menu options meet strict nutrition criteria based on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Institute of Medicine scientific recommendations. Additionally, a free geo-coded app helps parents connect to those restaurants that are offering healthier children’s meals. Since its inception in 2011, the program has grown to 42,000 restaurant locations.

NRA’s 2013 Forecast also surveyed consumers. “Seventy-one percent said they tried to eat more healthfully at restaurants than they did before. Restaurateurs noticed: Most reported that their customers ordered more healthful food than they did in the past.”

The USDA provides a tip sheet called, “Tips for Eating Healthy When Eating out.” Many, if not all of the 20 tips provided are simple suggestions that help to control portion size, decreased added sugars, increased vegetable consumption and increased whole grain intake. For example, the tip sheet advises, “as a beverage choice, ask for water or order fat-free or low fat milk, unsweetened tea or other drinks without added sugars.” Another suggests ordering food that does not have creamy sauces or gravies. These tips emphasize choices the diner can make, even if the menu choices aren’t labeled as a healthy option. Additionally, Michigan State University Extension provides additional information for those who wish to eat well while dining out.