Anita Jones-Mueller is the founder of Healthy Dining, which works to inspire chefs to create healthier options for consumers and make restaurant dining part of a healthy lifestyle. The initiative’s dining and nutrition guide, HealthyDiningFinder.com, helps diners locate restaurants near them that offer healthy choices. I caught up with Jones-Mueller about what 2013 will bring for restaurants, from this year’s top healthy dining trends to what restaurant owners need to know about federal menu labeling and the Affordable Health Care Act.

How will the Affordable Health Care Act affect restaurants in 2013, and what should restaurant owners do to prepare?

That is a great question! I have heard from three sources now that the FDA is expected to release the final rules for the federal menu labeling legislation in April. That legislation requires restaurants with 20 or more U.S. locations to print calories on menus and menu boards and have full nutrient disclosure available. That legislation was passed as part of the Health Care Reform Act. Once the final rules are announced, it is anticipated that the compliance date will be in effect within 12 months, possibly six months. So that is not much time to get ready! There are a few aspects of the regulation that are not known yet, such as whether alcoholic beverages will be included, how ranges of nutrition information should be stated, what type of dietary statement will be required by the FDA to be printed on the menu, and possibly further guidelines regarding the disclosure of additional nutrition information (fat, sodium, sugar, etc.).

But those unknowns shouldn’t keep restaurants from finalizing nutrition information and double- and even triple-checking the accuracy. Accuracy of this information will be very important for brand trust and loyalty. It’s also a good idea to assess the nutrient profiles to determine tactics for reducing excess calories, fat, sodium and/or sugar, as guests will start paying more attention to these profiles like never before, and restaurants with lots of lean and nutrient-dense items will likely build enhanced loyalty.

Healthy Dining’s dietitians emphasize the need for a structured system to keep the nutrition information up-to-date. Who will report changes in brands or measures to the nutrition analyst so the nutrient values can be updated? How will the values be updated on menus and menu boards, websites and brochures? It’s important to start planning for how the nutrition information will be communicated. For example, if the guest is offered a choice of sides, dressings, sauces, etc., how will the calories be listed on menus and menu boards? And finally, it’s also very important that all cooking staff be trained to prepare the items based on the specifications upon which the analysis was based. A lot of restaurants don’t have that system in place yet. So, as you can see there is a lot of prep to get ready to serve up those accurate nutrition numbers! Healthy Dining’s dietitians can help restaurants in all aspects of offering accurate nutrition information and complying with the new menu labeling regulations.

Increasing healthy offerings on restaurant menus has been a trend for the past few years. How can restaurants participate in this evolving trend in 2013?

Yes, healthy eating is an exciting trend that more and more chefs and restaurants are embracing. Restaurants are finding that creating and promoting healthier choices helps them to amplify their competitive edge and enhance guest loyalty. Some of the prominent trends this year include:

  • More vegetables: Technomic has identified an emphasis on vegetables as the #1 trend for 2013. Locally-sourced and organic are best, but all vegetables count. It’s helpful to think of a rainbow and try to include several colors in each menu item. So, think red peppers, purple eggplant, yellow mango and white onion because each color provides unique nutrients and healthful antioxidants and phytochemicals.
  • More whole grains: Another trend that is here to stay is whole grains. Quinoa has been termed “the super grain of the future.” It is the only grain that supplies all nine amino acids, making it a great plant-based protein source. Black rice is also a growing super food with powerful antioxidants. And of course, be sure to offer whole grain and high fiber cereals and whole grain breads, pastas, tortillas and pizza crusts, as well as brown rice.
  • Growing focus on quality and transparency: More consumers are looking for organic, free-range, locally-sourced and nutrient-dense meals. Additionally, consumers appreciate the availability of nutrition information so that they can understand how their restaurant meal fits into their daily intake and nutritional regime.
  • Healthier kids’ meals: The Kids LiveWell Program, developed by the National Restaurant Association in collaboration with Healthy Dining, has grown tremendously since it launched in 2011. The program promotes restaurants offering a selection of healthful kids’ meals emphasizing lean protein, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy. Most restaurants have a few items that qualify to start, and then the restaurant can continue to add more healthful kids’ choices as these items are developed. Healthy Dining’s team of dietitians works with each restaurant that has joined the program, and so we get to hear first-hand the chefs’ and marketing teams’ enthusiasm about and ongoing dedication to offering Kids LiveWell choices.
  • Gluten-free: Some people must eat gluten-free because they have celiac disease. There are others who have a sensitivity to gluten and feel better if they minimize the amount of gluten in their diets. And others are jumping on the bandwagon to eat gluten-free because they believe it’s healthy or think it will help them lose weight.

How can restaurants market healthy items to consumers? Or do you think consumers need to walk into a restaurant seeking healthy food in order for more nutritious items to sell?

The Healthy Dining and Kids LiveWell Programs featured on HealthyDiningFinder.com are the best ways to market healthier choices to consumers. The site attracts nutrition-conscious consumers who are watching their weight or sodium intake or following a special diet, such as a diabetic or cholesterol-lowering. Another segment includes those who are committed to eating healthy and want to avoid excess calories, fat and/or sodium when eating out. And, third, moms are becoming very interested in what their kids are eating, and they really like that they can find menu choices for both themselves and their kids on HealthyDiningFinder.com.

Many strategic partnerships across the nation to spread the word about the restaurants participating in Healthy Dining and the qualifying menu choices, including health organizations, employers, health insurance companies, dietitians and other nutrition professionals, which also increase the marketing reach of the program. Restaurants can also communicate the healthfulness of their menu items on their menu and website, although it is important to adhere to the Food and Drug Administration’s regulations for health and nutrient claims.

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