The Zen Of Dining Out Healthfully

National Restaurant Association (NRA) recently reported that four of five consumers think going out to a restaurant is a better use of their time than cooking and cleaning up. Let’s face it — eating out largely boils down to wanting to achieve time efficiencies and be entertained, not to wanting to count fruit and vegetable servings. Nonetheless, the ever-present buzz surrounding more healthful eating can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

Operators, suppliers and diners alike recognize that as eating out increases, increasing fruit and vegetable options on menus is also necessary to maintain health and wellness. Enjoyable, timesaving and nutritious meals eaten out — can there be balance?

In our latest consumer survey, Produce Marketing Association (PMA) finds harmony in variety. Working with Opinion Dynamics Corporation, PMA conducted a national telephone survey in October of 1,000 primary shoppers on their produce preferences specifically at casual and white tablecloth restaurants. We find that the more menu parts into which we can insert fruits and vegetables, the more Americans will eat, and the less guilt they will feel about indulging and the more enjoyable their dining experiences will be.

I’ve written before of the role produce plays in steering diners to a location. These results reinforce that, and they look further at where we might have our biggest impact. Our diners put a premium on the presence of fresh produce on the menu when deciding where to dine — 58 percent say this is important to their restaurant selection.

They also prefer ethnic cuisines when dining out, including Italian, Chinese, and Mexican (which tied with American). All of these cuisines also happen to be naturally rich in fruits and vegetables. While their tastes run to what were once considered the “exotic” side of dining, respondents nonetheless associate these cuisines most often with “staple” produce items, including tomatoes, beans, broccoli, onions, carrots and “salad.”

Driven by the changing demographics of 21st century America and the demand for more authenticity in what we eat, these once broadly defined ethnic restaurant categories are splintering. Americans want their meals spiced up with tastes, textures, and colors. Even today’s ingredients in fast-food salads would have been unthinkable a decade ago. More Matters!

As you make plans for 2008, remember that PMA’s annual consumer trends conference will focus on the opportunities being presented by the exploding popularity of ethnic cuisines. In particular, the 2008 Produce Solutions Conference in April will look at Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican cuisines and consumers. For more information, visit Conference registrants will also receive a 1-year subscription to PMA’s consumer surveys.

While the flavorful aspect of produce is very much on consumers’ minds while dining out, health appears to be less so. Only 15 percent of respondents say they request more healthful meal substitutions most of the time, while 78 percent say they do so only occasionally. When they do make healthful substitutions, their preference is produce; of those people making substitutions, 24 percent request fresh fruits or vegetables all or most of the time and 65 percent do so some of the time. Our diners tend to think more healthfully in the middle of the day than at the end. They report a much greater likelihood of ordering an entrée salad at lunch than dinner, and over one-quarter are not likely at all to order a salad for dinner.

Action item: Think of the marketing opportunities you have as a consumer. Have you ever asked a waiter for a fresh fruit dessert option when none is offered on the menu? I make a point of asking for mixed berries whenever I want a dessert while eating out. I learned that early in my career, at the elbow of two produce marketing greats: Jack Pandol, who asked for fresh fruit in the middle of winter (to promote awareness of the Chilean deal), and Joe Stubbs, who prompted every waiter to add a slice of lemon (preferably Sunkist!) to his water.

Foodservice remains a huge opportunity for fresh fruits and vegetables — from seeking ways for guests to substitute and customize their meals to add more fruits and vegetables, to identifying underserved meal parts and developing innovative dishes that dish up healthful and exotic flavors.

In our quest to meet diners’ wishes for pleasure, convenience, and health, we must balance our nutrition and produce marketing hats. A majority — 53 percent — doesn’t want nutritional information to be in their face on menu listings but rather be available upon request — and it should come as no surprise that 40 percent report they never choose fruit for dessert (after all, how many restaurants offer a fruit dessert option?).

As much as we would like to see menus scream with fresh produce and guests to gobble up healthful fruits and vegetables, the reality is we are a nation heavy into indulgence and don’t want to be constantly reminded of portion sizes and calorie counts. The fact that a dish is also healthful should be the icing on the cake. The onus is on our industry to continue collaborating with menu developers to increase the variety of fruit and vegetable dishes and menu options; meals that offer exotic flavors, introduce different produce from what’s always used at home and deliver a sense of indulgence. We must meet busy Americans dining out where their mouths are. After all, it’s just good karma.