Vegetable Options Increase On Restaurant Menus

Greg Hobby, Senior Business Development Manager, Technomic, Inc.

Consumers have been telling restaurants for decades that they want more healthful options on menus, but historically they have rarely purchased “better-for-you dishes.” That long-term trend has been shifting slowly, and consumers are beginning to place greater importance on their eating habits.

Part of the change has to do with the way consumers define “healthy,” as many have shifted their definition from “low fat” and “low calorie” to “fresh” and “natural.” Vegetables have benefited from this evolution, as consumers and menu developers alike discover uses beyond everyday salads and side dishes.

What’s Driving Demand

Consumers are placing greater pressure on restaurants to offer healthy but flavorful fare. A majority of consumers (65 percent) agree that “restaurants can offer healthy food in a way that will still taste good,” according to Technomic’s Category Close-Up: Vegetables report. And more than nine out of 10 consumers agree that menu items containing a full serving of vegetables are more healthy. Interestingly, nearly half (48 percent) of consumers think that having a full serving of vegetables makes a dish tastier, compared to only 8 percent who think vegetables make a dish less tasty.

The rise in vegetarianism — and more so, flexitarianism (the practice of eating mainly vegetarian foods, but occasionally obtaining protein from meat) — has also played a role. Two-thirds of consumers agree, at least somewhat, that vegetarian meals can be just as satisfying as meat-based meals. When we asked consumers what percentage of the meals they eat, both at home and away from home, include some type of meat, poultry or seafood and what percentage do not, we found that 18 percent, or nearly one out of five meals, do not contain meat.

Even consumers who are not necessarily interested in healthy or meatless meals are likely to be interested in foods described as “local,” “natural” and “organic.” In a 2012 Technomic survey, 56 percent of consumers said they consume “local” foods at least once a week (a figure that is up from 47 percent compared to those who surveyed the same answers two years prior). Fifty-five percent said they eat “natural” foods weekly (up from 44 percent), and 35 percent said the same of “organic” foods (up from 28 percent).

More Vegetables on Menus

These consumer demands have restaurant operators across the board adding vegetables to the menu in new applications. Category Close-Up: Vegetables used Technomic’s MenuMonitor online trend-tracking tool to analyze the menus of 683 of the top restaurant chains, emerging concepts and independent operators over five years.

As the “Total Menu Incidence of All Vegetables” chart (above right) illustrates, incidences of all vegetables (including produce such as tomatoes, which are technically a fruit but used by culinarians as vegetables)  increased by 13 percent since 2009.

The data that follows is a look at different categories of vegetables and some insights from the report.

Root Vegetables: This category includes some of the most widely consumed vegetables — white potatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes and beets have shown notable increases (each up more than 75 percent over the five-year period). Both have sweet flavor characteristics, a fact that operators can exploit by offering diners options that are at once sweet and healthy.

Leafy Vegetables/Lettuces: While many of these are used as a salad base, innovative restaurant operators have taken iceberg, cabbage, arugula, kale, spinach and Brussels sprouts into center-of-the-plate options. The darling of the category is kale. While the total incidence of kale remains relatively low, it grew by almost 400 percent over the past five years. Operators have found a variety of uses for kale, including salads, “chips” and as a replacement for sautéed spinach.

Botanical Fruits, Culinary Vegetables: A number of fruits are commonly recognized as vegetables, such as avocado, bell pepper, eggplant, tomato, tomatillo, and zucchini. Over the past five years, almost all of these have shown positive trends (with eggplant the exception). Many are commonly found in ethnic (primarily Latin-inspired) dishes. Avocados and tomatillos have posted the largest five-year growth rates within this category.

Other Vegetables: This category contains mainstream vegetables that do not fit neatly into the other categories, such as onions, asparagus, and broccoli. Broccoli fared well on restaurant menus over the past five years, with gains of nearly 30 percent in incidence. Its strong performance can partially be attributed to the interest in healthier kids’ meals, as 14 percent of all broccoli mentions are kid-centric.

Key Takeaway

While many consumers still consider restaurant visits a treat and a reason to indulge, many restaurant operators are building traffic by creating options that incorporate healthful elements in an innovative, appealing and even indulgent manner. In addition to imparting a “healthy” element, fresh vegetables allow operators to add vibrant flavors and colors, making it even more appealing.