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2011 Restaurant Food Trends: Healthy is on the Horizon

If you’re frustrated by the dearth of healthy food selections when you dine out, things may improve next year.

A greater focus on locally sourced food and a focus on sustainability are just two trends that we’ll see more of in 2011 according to the “What’s Hot” annual survey issued by the National Restaurant Association (NRA).

In the fall, the Association surveyed 1,527 chefs asking them to rate 226 food items, beverages, cuisines and culinary themes as a “hot trend”, “yesterday’s news” or a “perennial favorite”.

Results of that survey reveals that the top 10 menu trends for next year will be:

  1. Locally sourced meats and seafood
  2. Locally grown produce
  3. Sustainability as a culinary theme
  4. Nutritious kids’ dishes
  5. Hyper-local items
  6. Children’s nutrition as a culinary theme
  7. Sustainable seafood
  8. Gluten-free/food allergy-conscious items
  9. Back-to-basics cuisines
  10. Farm-branded ingredients

As Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of Research and Knowledge Group for the Restaurant Association said, “American diners are becoming more and more interested in what’s on their plate.”

Reduction in portion size will become more popular as diners try to watch calories while dining out. Bite size hors d’oeuvre and bite size desserts were number two in their respective categories. And, half-portions/smaller portion for a smaller price was the number two trend under main dishes.

An emphasis on healthy food in the kids’ meals was also noticeable. The top five trends for kids included nutritionally balanced dishes, fruit/vegetable side items, “kid cuisine”/gourmet, mini meals (smaller versions of menu items) and children’s entrée salads. These changes would be a welcome change to the unhealthy kid fare typically offered in restaurants - chicken fingers, pasta and French fries – and would go a long way toward solving the obesity problem in children.

Another welcome trend is fresh fruit breakfast items, which appeared third on the list of Breakfast/Brunch items. Fresh fruit options in the dessert category would be nice but this did not surface as a top trend.

In the produce category, the top 5 trends were locally grown, organic, superfruits, heirloom beans and exotic fruit. In California, restaurants like Paul Martin’s is already touting its use of fresh, organic and local produce for their meals.

While the trend toward healthier foods is encouraging, the challenge is whether restaurant chefs can walk the talk. A different study published last week in Obesity indicates otherwise. Researchers at Penn State surveyed chefs across the country to get their perceptions of serving healthy foods in restaurants.

In the study, the vast majority of chefs indicated that they could trim 10 percent of the calories in meals without consumers noticing. At the same time, more than 50 percent of chefs didn’t know the calorie content of their foods.

One third of the chefs thought an obstacle to increasing healthy food in restaurants was low consumer demand. A quarter thought that staff skills and training while almost 20 percent thought high ingredient cost was an issue.

The Bottom Line

Going out to dinner is a mixed blessing. It can give you a break from cooking but it can be a struggle to eat healthy.

Until chefs get on the health band wagon, here’s what you can do. Substitute a starch like potato or rice for an additional vegetable. Inquire if the restaurant will serve a lunch sized portion at dinner time. I’ve noticed that some restaurants like Il Fornaio are now offering a smaller portion sizes on their dinner menu.

Something to look for in 2011 is implementation of a federal law that requires restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to post nutritional information on their menus. Already enacted in states like New York, this nutrition information helps guide food choices. With so many people eating away from home, hopefully these changes will help reduce the obesity problem today.

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