by Marion Nestle
Apr 6 2009

Can restaurants do healthier food?

The editor of the San Francisco Chronicle magazine invited me to write about what restaurants could do to make it easier for customers to make more healthful choices.  Here’s what I said:

As a nutritionist who cares deeply about the effects of food on health, I am often asked to speak to groups of owners of restaurants and restaurant chains. I accept such invitations whenever I can because I have an agenda for restaurant owners. I want them to make it much easier for customers to make healthier food choices.

Yes, I know. Restaurants are in the business of selling food. Restaurants must offer choices and give customers what they want. But restaurants bear some responsibility for encouraging people to eat too much and, therefore, contributing to obesity and its consequences.

As someone who loves to eat and eats in restaurants several times a week, I am all too aware of efforts to get me to eat more than I ordinarily would. Rather than resisting those efforts on my own, I’d appreciate some help.

Here’s what I wish restaurants would do:

Give a price break for smaller portions. Larger portions are a huge barrier to healthful eating. Larger portions have more calories, of course. But they also encourage people to eat more, and they fool us into thinking that we aren’t eating so much. Controlling weight means eating smaller portions. I’d like restaurants to offer half-size servings for, say, 70 percent of the price of “normal” size. That would work better for me than taking home a doggie bag.

Make healthy kids’ meals the default. Why not put tasty and healthful meals on the menu as the only options for kids’ meals? If parents want their kids to eat junk food, they can always order it, but restaurateurs do not need to aid and abet that choice. Kids should be eating grownup food anyway – restaurant meals offer a chance to expand their food experience.

Cook with less salt. Put salt shakers on the table. If customers don’t think your food is salty enough, they can always add their own. But those of us who are trying to keep our blood pressure under control would appreciate food that did not already have so much added salt.

Notice that I’m not asking restaurants (other than fast food chains) to post calories or nutrition information, to label meals as heart-healthy or to do anything else to turn customers off. I’d be happy with just these three changes. Other suggestions, anyone?

  • Lindsay

    You say “Restaurants are in the business of selling food. Restaurants must offer choices and give customers what they want. But restaurants bear some responsibility for encouraging people to eat too much and, therefore, contributing to obesity and its consequences.”

    I say this:

    Restaurants ARE in the business of selling food. And they must give customers choices of what they want so they keep coming back. They keep portions large so people think they are getting their moneys worth. And it works.

    HOWEVER, while I think restaurants contribute to obesity, I do not go as far as to say it is their fault that people are obese. Nor is it their responsibility to keep people from eating bad things – they are in a business to make money and give people want they want. That is exactly what they are doing.

    The consumers ALONE are responsible for themselves and their health. They should be making healthy choices in their lives, eating right and exercising. If they get obese because they eat Big Macs everyday, that is their own fault.

    I say, by blaming the restaurants it takes the responsibility off of the consumers. Just keep blaming someone else…the american way.

  • Lindsay

    Also a few more comments….

    1. “price break for smaller portions” – sounds like a great idea in todays economy but as an option – split with whomever your dining with – same outcome, eat less, pay less.

    Also, just because they give you a larger portion, doesn’t mean you have to eat it all….again, going back to blaming the restaurant instead of making smart choices on your own.

    2. “Use less salt while cooking – put shakers on the table”
    This will actually cause people to use MORE salt in the end. With unlimited salt sitting right in front of them – they are inevitably going to use it…..but if we want to get scientific about it – using salt while cooking a meal, will actually cause the flavors to come out of the food, allowing them to marry better for the end result. Putting salt in at the end actually just creates a SALTY taste vs an overall flavor of the combined ingredients. Which again in the end will make the dish taste like its missing something, and cause the consumer to overuse the salt shaker in front of them.

  • I agree with your three choices/advisements.

    And while I don’t think nutritional information is necessary (or even wanted, let me order a chcolate sundae in peace please!).

    But I would like to know where my meat came from. Meat in the US is scary. And I never order it anymore. Or rarely.

    If I knew its origins, I’d be more inclined to skip my salad in favor of a more expensive steak, pork chop or fish.

    The Monterey Bay Aquarium has its safe seafood program, why can’t there be a Safe Beef, Safe Pork program??

  • Meredith

    Marion, I agree with you on the smaller portions. I am a small, thin woman and I would like to stay that way. I hate it when I go to the Cheesecake Factory or any other number of large chain restaurants and have to purchase an entree that is so huge I am eating leftovers for days. American restaurant portions are out of control! Any American who doesn’t think so should just leave our contry for a few weeks and see how the rest of the world eats. No wonder our nation is so obese! I feel like my needs and wants (healthy, fresh, nutritious food in small portions) are ignored at most restaurants. One solution I have found is sometimes I order off the children’s menu or lunch menu for dinner for a smaller portion – but more often than not the servers will not allow me. Or I go the appetizer and salad route but that gets boring fast. I find the fact that I have to resort to these tactics a bit ridiculous. I once went to a premium ice cream store and was told that I was not allowed to purchase the kids cone (which had one scoop) because I was not under the age of 12. I told her that I was watching my weight and that all I wanted was one scoop of ice cream, not the two scoops which were offered on their smallest size. And why should I be forced to purchase more than I want? An argument ensued and I ended up getting my one scoop – but paying for two. How ridiculous is that? Here’s something else restaurants should do – put caloric information on their menus. It’s really easy to order a 1,000 calorie entree w/tons of fat and sodium if you can’t read the label.

  • Dear Lindsay,

    Your points are valid. It IS the consumers responsibility.

    Just like its my responsibility to find out where and how my clothes are made, and spend my consumer power accordingly. No children factories, all organic cotton, etc…

    But in this case, instead of advocating a boycott of restaurants. Total shut out. Where small family owned businesses lose out on customers and revenue. Potentially closing down.

    Can’t we work together and help each other? Can’t restaurants do their part so consumers can do theirs?

    Then I get to eat out and my local restaurants get to stay in business…

    Warm wishes,

  • “Can restaurants do healthier food?”

    Yes and no.

    Sure, they COULD.

    However, they won’t, simply because we (as customers, or maybe “consumers” is a better word) won’t let them.

    I grew up in the restaurant biz, and I can tell you…a restaurant will serve just about anything that they know the customers will order, will be willing to pay the mark-up for, and will make them come back through the doors.

    Most restaurants DO carry healthy selections in reasonable portions, but these options are ordered so rarely that we’ve sent a clear message to any business that wants to stay in business…

    We want COMFORTING food, we want MORE of it, and we want to pay LESS for it.

    Let’s face it, starch and fat taste good, are cheaper to prepare and, therefore, can be served in larger portions at a more “reasonable” price.

    The American “super-size” mentality is what’s at fault here, not the restaurant industry.

    They are simply supplying to our demand.

    As usual, we need to be pointing at the big guy in the mirror.

  • @trinadj

    Chow restaurant in the Bay Area is known for its affordable food using local/sustainable ingredients, AND they offer many dishes in 2 or 3 sizes (and priced accordingly). As a petite woman who tends to eat smaller-sized portions anyway, offering a menu in this format also means I can get a more varied selection (meaning i can order 2-3 things rather than one huge dish). Seeing how popular this place is (it’s grown to 4 locations now), I wonder why more restaurants don’t do the same.

  • Telios

    Yikes – reading this article – and a few of the follow-up comments – gave me the willies. I’m a restaurant professional with over two decades of experience. I preach (and practice) the farm-to-table ethos. Still, I find the idea that restaurants are responsible for what consumers eat to be a bit reductionist. A restaurant’s responsibility ends with the cleanliness of its establishment and equipment and the freshness of the ingredients it uses (from the perspective of their immediate safety).

    As a consumer, I choose the establishments I frequent. I also choose which establishments I return to, and where my money ends up – this is the beauty of a free market – and the danger, too. We are our own agents.

    The idea that groups like the Cheesecake Factory should adjust their portion size for you, serve “healthier” meals, and allow adults to eat from their kid’s menu is absurd. Would you walk in to a noodle bar and insist that the staff cook you a pork chop? You are not being mislead – and nobody is forcing that second scoop into your mouth. On top of that, nobody is forcing you to waste that second scoop, should you choose to toss it in favor of your skinniness. If you worry about eating two scoops or feel guilty about tossing one, there is a simple solution: don’t frequent the establishment that serves two scoops. Buy a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and eat a scoop at home. Or maybe switch to some organic sorbet.

    @Meredith – you are among the many people who frequent restaurants and food service establishments with very little understanding of what it takes to make one run. Don’t feel bad; there are plenty of you out there. However, the next time you want one scoop, or kiddie noodles with tomato sauce, stay home. An ice-cream parlor most likely cannot turn a profit on a single-scoop sale. Two scoops and they start to break even. Kid’s menus in restaurants are there for the parents – as a device to help them accommodate their children, not as an optional menu from which adults can order at their whim. Again, most restaurants view kid’s menus as a loss-leader. They loose money on certain menu items so that they can make a buck on their main menu. It’s a service to you, not a profit center to them. Here’s where I agree with Marion – ditch the kid’s menus, order real food for them so they can come to appreciate what that means.

    Just as you are entitled to eat a crisp green salad, some fresh endive, or a 12 course tasting menu at Cyrus, restaurants are entitled to serve the type of food they see fit, with the portion sizes that they think fit their brand and will keep them in business. They can choose to attend to their business, and to grow it. Or they can choose to ignore it and have it suffer. You can choose to cook at home, frequent a different restaurant, or put on a couple of pounds in the name of food-joy!

    Americans aren’t obese because restaurants serve them too much food. They’re obese because they consume too much.

  • I kind of agree with Perry. People go out to eat what they want and feel like they are ‘treating’ themselves even. I don’t know how restaurants can increase profits by serving healthy foods.

    However I do think it is their responsibility to start figuring it out. It’s ALL of our responsibility. It’s our culture and we all have to play a part.

    An initial thought is to put toppings on the side. This works well for salad dressings. What about chili with cheese and sour cream on the side as standard practice? That wouldn’t cost a restaurant any lost profits, but customers could choose how they top their food.

  • Lindsay

    @Telios – Im on your side, bud. We are essentially saying the same – you just say it better. 🙂

    @Mimi (meredith) – I didn’t say boycott the restaurants, as Telios said it more eloquently than I – it is your choice where and how much you eat.

    Honestly if I had it my way, everyone would eat, buy and serve all local foods, true, free range meats, etc. But IF and how we get there is another topic entirely.

  • As a dietician/nutritionist and the owner of an all-organic restaurant I take a different approach. I think, in a nutshell, more vegetables, less red meat and zero pesticides trump smaller portion sizes when it comes down to dealing with the two top killers…heart disease and cancer. We offer a salad bar, swiss chard enchiladas and peanut butter sandwiches for the kids. P.S. I saw you speak in Santa Barbara and I know we are lucky to be growing our own broccoli on our farm in California which supplies our restaurant…but I think our model is viable.

  • ruth

    i agree with lindsay… salt shakers on the table will only encourage people to add more salt. on the other hand, while this idea could work, i’m more inclined to think that it would apply to certain types of restaurants. for restuarants at the higher end of the spectrum, a salt shaker at the table can be an insult to chefs who take pride in their culinary skill.

    it is a matter of choice – not just about the consumer but the chefs and restaurant owners as well – when this world is mostly about business profits and getting the bang for your buck.

    but i agree with the first two points.

    i guess… no matter how many good-willed changes are attempted, they can only work for different types of people, with diverse eating habits and preferences.

  • misterworms

    It would be nice if substitutions were more freely available. When I order a $12 dish and 3/4 of it is a heap of white rice, white pasta or white potatoes, with white bread on the side, you are not fooling me into thinking that I am getting a great deal. The proportion of vegetables and meat in many typical restaurant dishes is teeny tiny.

    This is why I stopped eating out. I can easily cook empty starchy calories at home for just pennies instead of wasting my money. Restaurants could at least offer those starches in whole grain varieties or some more varied grains.

  • I agree with ‘misterworms’, I dont like paying for starch. Ive never understood why most restaurants never can make a decent salad- and they still charge as much as a seperate meal.
    Marion- I like your suggestions,and I have two more:
    1. I want fresh (not overcooked) vegetables, at least 1/3 of the plate
    2. the option to decide whether I want my food and especially vegetables saturated in oil or cream
    3. Real salads- and not something only my rabbit would find apetizing

  • MikeP

    I would add to your list for restaurant advice a suggestion to always include a green vegetable with any entree. At some restaurants, the only vegetable is a salad which could be ordered in addition to the entree, but the main course often comes out alone on the plate without a side vegetable. (And I am not counting french fries as a vegetable.)

  • Lindsay

    If you don’t like what you get at restaurants, don’t eat there. Simple as that.

  • Meredith

    Telios I don’t appreciate the personal attack. And I find it funny that you say I have very little understanding of what it takes to make a restaurant run. My father owns a bakery which I have helped run for 5 years. Growing up I worked in the food industry at Subway, Starbucks and several restaurants including the Olive Garden, as a waitress and hostess. I do know what is involved in the business and I do understand how difficult it can be to succeed. So please, don’t judge me when you don’t know the first thing about me. My issue with the restaurant industry is not that many restaurants do not offer normal portions or healthy choices. And yes, for these reasons I often choose to cook at home and avoid restaurants who do not provide me with the food I am looking for. But I resent you implying that I am being “cheap” or that I have unrefined tastes by occasionally desiring to eat off the children’s menu. I only choose to do so for portion control reasons – not because I’m a tightwad. I’m happy to pay as much as necessary at a restaurant, so long as you are giving me what I want (delicious, healthy food that is in a normal portion). And I’m going to disagree with you when you say that ice cream shops don’t turn a profit on a one scoop cone. Most places charge at least $4 or $5 for a one scoop cone. Considering you can buy a retail carton of ice cream for half that price and that the ice cream shops don’t have to prepare the ice cream unlike other establishments who have to pay chefs, they do make a profit. They hire some kid at minimum wage and if he serves 2 cones he’s already covered his wage for the hour. Regardless, I’ll continue to eat at home and be picky about where I eat out if it means I can stay a size zero and be fit and healthy.

  • RawlinD

    Restaurants: “serve small portions”, charge less, limit fat and butter, serve more veggies (which people never eat). limit salt.

    Formula for going bust in about six months, before your lease is up.

  • Cathy Richards

    A lot of the comments are about practising individual responsibility in where we choose to eat, what we order, and how much of it we consume. However Brian Wansink has done a lot of research to show — over and over again — that our environment has a great deal of responsibility in where, what, and how much we eat. Even when he tests dietitians, portion sizes and plate sizes influence how much they eat, overriding their nutrition knowledge. A healthier environment — including fewer unhealthy choices in restaurants and having better affordability and accessibility of healthier ones — makes it easier for everyone to eat well. Wansink says “create an environment that supports personal responsibility, rather than undermining it”.

  • Telios

    @Meredith – 2 cones covers the kid’s minimum wage, then what about the shop’s nut: payroll taxes, payroll services, the 15 tons of AC on the roof, refrigeration systems, information technology expenses, rent, insurance, trash removal, marketing, advertising… As your experience must lead you to understand, there are a great many and complex costs associated with simply bringing the consumer through the door – what it takes to keep them there and bring them back is another story all together. I apologize if I implied that you were cheap for ordering from the kid’s menu. My intent was more to demonstrate that it is inappropriate and shows a certain lack of understanding for how restaurants function.

    My sarcasm seems to have obscured my broader point: ultimately it is you who are responsible for what you eat and that restaurants enjoy the same freedoms that individuals enjoy – chief among them, the freedom of expression – to express where they stand in relation to food, wine, dining, culture, etc… Demanding change from these restaurants – particularly when it comes to telling them what to serve, how to serve it, and what to charge for it – would be like asking Hemingway to write science fiction novels because, if he did, you might read them.

    @Cathy Richards – I have read several of Brian’s studies, and find them very informative. However, I feel as though there are several common conclusions drawn as a result of those studies, which are based on only a snapshot of one facet of dining culture. His studies tend to focus on environment in relation to the nutritional value derived from what is being consumed. Nutrition is only one of many reasons people choose to dine out – and there’s a vigorous argument to be made for whether or not this should be a universal consideration. Secondly, these studies, if misappropriated, can lead people to believe that it is not a psychological deficiency that needs to be corrected, but rather a sociological/ethical deficiency. People make the decision to dine at a particular restaurant for many reasons. From my perspective, the most important considerations are the social experience I associate with dining with people, and the gastronomic pleasure I receive from experiencing different foods. I also love to witness culture through food and wine. While nutrition is an important consideration for me in terms of my overall conception of my diet, it has almost no bearing on my restaurant choices. I fulfill my nutritional mission at home. That being said, I also don’t frequent many restaurants that pile on the french-fries and double up the patties. But when I do, I derive a great deal of enjoyment from my glimpse of Americana. Preserving choice is one of the keys to preserving freedom and individual liberty.

    That might seem out of place in a conversation about restaurants and nutrition, but in a business climate that is about to undergo radical change – particularly in terms of pending legislation – it is certainly worth considering.

  • I want to know where the food comes from. That’s all. Where was the food grown?

    OK, nevermind. I want to know how the food was grown, also. As in, organically?

  • Rose L

    I spend more time out of the US than in, particularly in Europe. When I return to the US, I am SHOCKED at the portion sizes. Many of us grew up with the idea that it is a sin to throw food away and therefore we make an effort to clean our plates. There is absolutely no need for the outrageous portions served by American restaurants. It also does not benefit them. If you are so full by the time you finish your appetizer, you will not finish your entree and will not order desert.

    I suggest that smaller portions benefit everyone, including the restaurant’s bottom line. Perhaps instead of offering smaller portions at a reduced rate, restaurants should offer larger portions at a higher price. That way only those who absolutely want larger portions get them.

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