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5 simple ways to create healthier menu items that actually sell

Many people think that restaurant brands try to create the most indulgent, unhealthy products available to get people addicted to their products.  The truth is that almost every brand has the desire to offer healthier menu items, and has tried a variety of approaches with varying success.   Perhaps they’ve tried a “Lite options” separate section of the menu, or they’ve added a plant based burger, or they offer “smart swaps”. Or perhaps they’ve tried to add new product categories within successful existing platforms like the addition of real fruit smoothies to a beverage lineup, or expanded with grain and pulse based bowls piled high with vegetables.

Where friction can occur within brands is the debate on whether or not that healthier item will drive sales and business results in the same ways that other classic items do.  These objectives of the desire to offer consumers healthy choices by adding new items to the menu, and driving business results through traditional menu categories can often compete with each other and become a source of conflict within large companies.

When we say healthy, we’re speaking about attributes such as total calories, the quality of the ingredients, and the source and nutritive quality of the protein, fats and carbohydrates in those products. Consumers have a broad definition of health and wellness that include things like animal welfare and sustainability, which are important, but don’t necessarily impact the actual nutrition of the menu items they’re choosing.

Developing menu items that are better for consumers and developing items that sell does not have to be an “either-or” solution.  You can do both!   Here are some simple strategies to move the needle and make an impact.

Integrate a Registered Dietitian on your R&D team or in your R&D process

This one is so simple!  Registered Dietitians (RDs) are trained, credentialed professionals who advise clients on a wide variety of food and nutrition issues.  A business-savvy RD is integral to helping a menu R&D team think through the best possible version a menu item can be. They can challenge you to think more critically about the composition of your product or dish, good/better/best ingredients to use, where to put your calories and why, and how that impacts the consumer in a positive way.  I’ve found partnering with RDs to be extremely beneficial in developing not only “health” forward items, but developing the best item for any category of the menu.

Small changes can have big impact

Some people in the past have said to me – we’re a treats brand, how can we credibly do something healthy?  Well the answer is that not everything has to be about a new menu item.  You can look at your existing menu items and find ways to make them a little bit better without upending your menu strategy.  A popular term for this is “stealth health”, where you make small changes in the background.  A very simple example would be to reduce the sodium or sugar in a product 5%.  On most products consumers won’t notice, and across thousands of locations and meals that can really add up to an impact on public health.  Another example would be to reduce the protein portion by a small amount, but increase its quality.  Perhaps you have skirt steak on top of a salad and you could move to a higher grade of beef, but reduce the portion slightly.

Bring the plants forward

If you haven’t heard about “plant-based” you must be hiding under a rock.  Plant-forward, however is another term that has come about to embrace the flexitarian approach to eating.  Bring vegetables front and center, and use meat as a garnish.  Many global cuisines are classic examples of this.  You can capitalize on the trend of global flavors, and even forms like “bowls” to create delicious products that are mostly plants, and entirely craveable and satisfying.

Improve the quality of your carbohydrates

This one is pretty simple – look at the makeup of the carbohydrates in baked goods or in composed dishes and figure out where you can move to more whole grain products.  Can you switch or offer brown rice instead of just white?  Can you add more whole wheat flour to those baked goods?  These changes could also fit under small changes have a big impact above.  Can your default English muffin be a whole grain English muffin?  Can you incorporate pulse flours? Many major brands have figured this out and are well under way to improving their menus

Talk about protein or functionality!

Functional foods and speaking about health in a functional way has been very successful with consumers. Think about how many products make functional claims that you have seen!  The main one that has resonated in the past has been protein.  A sandwich with 20g of protein.  A beverage packed with 15g of protein. Many consumers equate protein with health and satiety – and you can capitalize on that with a healthy item that tastes great.   If you have a well-crafted menu item that has an actual functional benefit that you can make a claim on, you should consider it as a way to entice consumers into that healthier option.  Just remember to ensure your claim is valid and you’ve run it through your regulatory team!

Now if you’re a supplier to restaurant brands, you might be wondering what this means to you.  it’s important to understand the pressures and challenges of your customer's menu strategy.  Take the time to understand the brand lens of your particular customer, and think about these strategies and how your product offering may be able to help.  Perhaps you have a simple solution to the challenge of creating healthy items that sell in their operation.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a national chain with thousands of locations, a regional chain focused on casual dining, or an independent restaurant group focused on a particular global cuisine; all can benefit from simple strategies to improve the nutritive quality of the food they are serving.   What will you do to improve the offering of nutritious, healthy items on your menu?


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