The task of improving the nutrition of a restaurant’s offerings overall might seem daunting, but eateries that don’t make an effort are missing out on a major opportunity to attract increasingly more diners who want healthy choices. At a session during the National Restaurant Association Show titled “Nutrition trends: How can your restaurant capitalize?” three panelists spoke about how restaurants of any size can implement health-focused changes that resonate with consumers.

Darden Restaurants, parent of casual-dining juggernauts Red Lobster and Olive Garden, is an example of how healthy initiatives can be rolled out on a large scale, said Cheryl Dolven, director of health and wellness for the company. Darden’s restaurants source from more than 2,000 suppliers worldwide and use more than 2,500 ingredients to create their menus. The company has committed to reducing overall calories and sodium content by 20% during the next decade.

Another example of a chain that has successfully made healthy food a mainstay of its menu is Rockville, Md.-based Silver Diner. Ype Von Hengst, executive chef and vice president of culinary operations, said the chain revamped the way it sources food back in 2010, switching to a network of mainly local suppliers. This year, the chain, which has 15 locations across Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey, has rolled out 25 vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options.

Dolven and Von Hengst, along with Healthy Dining President Anita Jones-Mueller, shared how Darden and Silver Diner have capitalized on the healthy-dining trend and how other restaurants can do the same.

Consumers want choices. The first of three principles to which Darden subscribes when improving the nutrition of its offerings is “choice and variety,” Dolven said. Offering a few healthy choices is a smart idea, but providing a full range of options across all menu categories lets diners have it their way, and that is what keeps consumers coming back. Dining out is a special occasion, and many consumers will save up money and calories for a night out. “That’s not ‘driving through the drive-thru, just getting fed’ … that’s an experience for them,” Dolven said. Side dishes and add-ons are especially important when it comes to making healthy dining a lucrative move, because many people “will choose the entree they want, and then they’ll balance around that,” she said. “So if you don’t have sides that allow them to do that, or lower-calories [appetizers] or lower-calorie desserts, they can opt out of those sessions, which you know as a restaurateur becomes a real problem with what the final check ends up being.”

Cater to children. All of the panelists mentioned the importance of children’s menus when improving nutrition, a key component that eateries are embracing, with slimmed-down sides such as apples replacing french fries and juice and milk usurping soda. Von Hengst talked about the importance of taste when selling healthy items to children. In 2012, Silver Diner overhauled its kids’ menu, holding a taste test to see how new items fared with young diners. Letting the children choose led to surprising additions: Teriyaki salmon and steamed edamame got the nod of approval.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Increasing the nutrition of the menu doesn’t have to mean a makeover. It can be as simple as adding a few healthy sides or offering smart substitutions. Switching to whole-grain bread or whole-wheat pasta, or listing them as an option, is a great way to start, Jones-Mueller said. “More and more people are eating those at home, so they want them when they eat out,” she said. Lean protein is another smart choice that makes for a simple substitution. A turkey burger or a veggie patty is perfect for diners who want the taste of a burger without the guilt.

As for gluten-free, a category that continues to grow, Jones-Mueller said restaurants shouldn’t rush to make promises they can’t keep. Using the word “free” can mislead, because truly gluten-free establishments need to have separate prep and cooking areas to ensure nothing has been contaminated. Instead of investing in gluten-free bread and pasta, restaurants can look to items that are inherently gluten-free and offer those as a solution to diners with special dietary needs.

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