Restaurants Offer Healthy Options, But Are You Eating Them?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Many restaurants these days are offering healthier menu choices in response to consumer feedback. Restaurant patrons want to enjoy their dining experience, knowing they aren't blowing their calorie budget for the day. Applebee's offers their Weight Watchers menu, Ruby Tuesdays has "Smart Eating Choices" and even Wendy's offers suggestions of how to make your meals more nutritious. But are people taking advantage of these options? A new study says maybe not.

A recent study from Mintel International says the majority of diners make menu selections based on taste and hunger, not based on nutritional value. Here are some highlights from the survey:

77% of participants chose foods based on taste
44% chose foods based on hunger satisfaction
20% chose foods based on nutritional value

In another study by the same group, 77% of respondents said they wanted to see more nutritious options on restaurant menus. It seems like what people say they want, and what they actually end up choosing are two different things. Is that because the healthy menu options don't taste good? Is it because the variety is too limited?

One reason many respondents said they didn't choose based on nutritional value is because eating healthier costs more. When I dine out, I always check the "healthy options" section of the menu first to see what's available. Typically, I don't notice that those foods are more expensive than anything else on the menu. If I don't pick them, it's usually because they don't appeal to me.

I'm sure many people walk through the restaurant door with great intentions. "I'm going to make healthy choices today and not stray from the plan." But then you sit down and the server gives you a copy of the dessert menu. You see a picture of their bowl of ooey- gooey chocolate heaven, and that plan goes right out the window.

Would you like to see restaurants offer more healthy options? When those options are available, do you eat them? If not, why?

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I'm trying very hard to eat right as I eat out and travel a lot. I'm surprised (pleasantly) at how many places (particularly fast food) are offering take home sheets of nutritional information. That's progress! Report
Yes! I would love to see more diet friendly menus. It is very frustrating when my family wants to go out to eat. I get very anxious and it is hard doing the research to find the better options. I do take advantage of the healthier menu items. I check online before I go and try to plan out what I am going to get before I get there. Report
How come there are no healthy appeitizers? Most everything is fried. Report
I choose light or fat free dressing (I have looked at many restaurant's web-sites to find out the best choice in dressings, many of which I was surprised to see weren't really the best choice) and I do not odrer fries. Did you know that just 2 french fries have as much fat as a baked potatoe with nothing on it? Report
I have found a bar and grill in our neighborhood that not only has great food, I can eat all of the salads they offer AND they are williing to prepare food however you like. Report
I made a healthy choice this weekend when I went out to eat. There were a couple of wonderful sounding pasta dishes on the menu that I almost chose. Instead I opted for a tasty tuna salad that was served in an avocado. I was very pleased with my lighter choice while everyone else at the table had the heavy pasta dishes. Report
I do check out the healthy options, but too often, those 'healthy' dishes have no taste. I usually eat the grilled tilapia at Red Lobster, for example, but they pair it with steamed, unseasoned broccoli! I can EAT broccoli, but I really need some seasoning or something to dip it in. RL would be better off offering green beans, which more people are likely to enjoy.

Healthy dishes CAN taste good and be relatively inexpensive Spinach topped with apples, strawberries, and a low-fat raspberry vinaigrette, for example, is delicious and no more expensive than the fancy salads with the croutons, homemade ranch, and real bacon. Roasted chicken is tasty and better for you than fried chicken, but KFC can't seem to make one that isn't bland and without added beef fat. Don't these chains have chefs working for them? Report
I choose restaurants based on their healthy options, checking their menu online ahead of time.
Most restaurants' lower calorie options are not plant based, they are just smaller portions of unhealthy foods, it seems. So I usually end up ordering a regular menu item and asking for substitutions (veggie patty instead of burger, no cheese, extra veggies, etc.). Report
My problem is that a lot of the healthier options are all "southwest"-ified. They all have to be so darned spicy to cover up no flavor. I can't eat Applebee's WW menu. I love Friday's "right portions" and Wendy's has a lot of healthy options right on the VALUE menu - good food that doesn't break your budget- WOW!!

And when I do succumb to "taste and hunger" - I always split my meal in half or thirds right away and load up on grilled veggies. I have the most awesome leftovers in my office! Report
I do look at the nutireant value of the food(s) I would be injesting. I don't eat out that much at all, and fast foods joints are not my places to eat at. Report
I really wish more restarants who offer better choices Report
If i do not see anything that i want to eat i will ask if they can grill me some chicken .. they always do it and do not charge me any more for it .. even if they did it would not really matter to me as i do not go out all that much .. Report
I wish that not only would all restaurants offer the nutritional information for every meal, but also each part of the meal. That way we could pick and choose our entrees and sides based upon the number of calories WE need. Sometimes 500 is just too much! Additionally, make it tasty! I too often do not choose the healthier options because they are just plain boring or straight up disgusting! Report
If I am planning to go out for a meal at a chain restaurant, I usually go to their website first. Most have a list of nutrients that you can print. That way you can plan your meal ahead of time and have that special taste to look forward to. Sometimes you can find a coupon or an unadvertised special and that makes everything taste better. Enjoy..... you don't have to eat everything on your plate, you know... take it home, it will taste just as good tomorrow too. Report
I appreciate that some restaurants have healthier choices, and I do look at those, but for me as long as I am careful what I eat most of the time and I don't go out very often, I don't like to limit myself to just what is on the "lighter side" menu. If I find something there that sounds good to me, I will try it. But generally, for me, when I go to a restaurant, I can't finish my dinner anyway and it ends up being someone else's lunch the next day. Portion control helps the high calorie meal. And I usually don't have room for that ooey- gooey chocolate heaven. Report
Thanks SWEETIESSLAVE for letting us know that Olive Garden offers a light version of their salad dressing if you ask for it, I didn't know that. After reading the SparkPeople article about all the calories in the Olive Garden salad, I've been hesitant to order it again, but a small portion with light dressing might fit my meal plan. Here's the article:

Eating out is such a rarity for my husband and me that when we do go out, the naughtier selections are always more appealing. We eat healthily at home so eating out becomes a departure from that in more ways than one... Report
I try to limit eating out in general, but I do LOVE it when people will agree to meet at Friday's or Applebees because I know they have foods on their nutritional menu that are not only tasty, but filling!!! Friday's has an awesome hawaiian chicken dish and Applebees used to have a great chicken melt - actually more like a quesadilla - they took that off the menu if I remember right but whatever I had instead was still pretty good.

I would still like to see more places have more options... even if 20% are eating off of it, that is 20% of business that place may have lost otherwise. Report
I really like going to the buffets. I fill up on a large salad, fruit and then hot vegetables and maybe baked chicken or fish. Report
Personally, I'm a tad shell-shocked by all the articles I've read in magazines, websites, etc. that tell me to beware of salads and whatnot that end up packing in even more calories than the more obvious high-calorie items. Healthy foods are only healthy to me when I can see the calorie amounts.

I would rather all restaurants include nutritional information for all menu items than to have them add vague "healthier options". Just because their healthIER does make them healthy. Report
My husband and I are vegetarian 80% of the time and only eat fish/seafood (no red/white/whatever meat) the other 20%. Also, we either split entrees or take huge boxes home every time. Lastly, anything deep-fried or smothered in a heavy sauce is unappealing to me on principle... so no, I don't worry too much over picking the 'healthy' options. What I want is never too bad, and I won't be eating much of it anyway! Report
I try to choose healthier options where ever I go, but there are a few things that really bug me about beverage choices. When you ask for water, they always want to sell you a bottle of water vs. a cup with ice and water. That's even at Wendy's when ordering a meal (grilled chicken with side salad and water). The only diet drinks available (diet pop or unsweetened tea) contain caffeine, which I limit greatly due to kidney stone issues. One thing I found out about the Olive Garden is that there is a light version of their salad dressing available but you have to ask the server for it, it is not on the menu. Living in Cincinnati means Skyline Chili to me so I get the burrito deluxe without cheese and sour cream. Love it! Report
I go to Applebee's occasionally, and noticed the comments above (below, now). In my area, they no longer have a WW menu separate, but the WW meals are scattered throughout the menu with WW info listed with each. Report
When we eat out it is usually at the Olive Garden. We get the salad with dressing on the side. Daughter-in-law and I rarely eat the dressing. Then I order a chicken recipe. Not sure if they are all low-cal, but I order chicken because my husband doesn't like it so I don't make it at home.

Joan W Report
I would love to see more fast food places offer a variety of healthy choices -- even vegetarian..As for restaurants, there have been times I swore my meal would be healthy -- then comes the menu with all the colorful photos -- so much for the healthy choices. They need to offer more healthy varietys and display them as they do the unhealthy choices. Report
I would like to see restaurants offer more healthy options. I admit I don't always make the healthiest choices, but there are many times I do. Yesterday hubby and I went to McDonalds for breakfast and I consciously chose the fruit and yogurt parfait and small orange juice instead of a sandwich because I wanted to make a healthy choice. Report
When I don't see what I want, I ask. I was shocked to be at a "beef" place with a friend and though it wasn't on the menu, I asked about a veggie burger. They actually had one! I also fill out the comment cards praising the healthy options or asking for ones I don't see. I tend to frequent places where I can get a salad and usually bring my own dressing. Report
ps. It doesn't matter where one eats or what's on that menu. BELIEVE everyone knows right from wrong...regarding food that is...& how to eat most anything prepared THEIR for me... Report
No matter where you eat, you can control the calories, fat, ETC. in your foods. You're PAYING, that says it's your call..kind of like...'make it MY way'...I do, you can too. I've sent several plates back that weren't done the way I ordered. NOW they know!! It's your way!! Report
YES!! I want to see healthier options. I've eaten some of Applebee's WW selections and THEY WERE TERRIBLE!! I was so disappointed!! I don't want to pay $12 for shriveled up and tasteless food! It wasn't even worth the 500 calories that totaled the dish! ICK!

I've recently returned to Applebees and didn't order from the "healthy choice" menu. Instead, I indulged a little bit by sharing some boneless wings with my husband, and then I ordered a salad and ate it without dressing.

I do choose healthier foods at TGIFriday's. Their lighter options are yummy. Report
One of the first things I do when going out to eat is, (if I didn't look on line first) ask for a nutrition guide. If they don't have one, I voice my displeasure. I also keep an envelope in the car with some I've printed or picked up. I truly try to have my dinner chosen before I go out to eat. It's all about the planning! Report
I have not found a satisfying meal on the healthy meals menu at most restaurants. I do like Subway sandwiches, though. And I do like to get a low fat footlong for $5 and eat half for one meal and then the other half for another meal. I always have them put on all the veggies, that's what makes it so good! And since we are traveling so much, I think it is a better alternative to most restaurant foods. Report
I eat off the Applebee's weight watchers section and my favorite food at Olive Garden is off the healthy section. We do have a restaurant on our island owned by a man who lost about 100 lbs last year and put a healthy menu together. The food is great but it is over priced. I do eat off of it with the understanding that even though I am getting less food for more money, I am not destroying my program and it's easier having them count the calories and do the portion control then me trying to figure it out later. Report
I would also be more likely to choose the "healthy" choices if they were more appealing. I like Mexican food, but Carlos O'Kelly's healthy items are SO bland and dry I can't make myself order them.
Also, at least in this area, Applebees is no longer offereing the Weight Watchers menu. Last time I looked it was still on their website, but not on the in store menu. The same is true for Red Lobster's Lite House, although they still have their fresh fish and their wood-fired grill items can be worked with. Report
I'm happy to see restaurants continue to improve their selections of healthy options. I have every confidence that with consumer input, the taste will continue come around to meet a variety of likes. In the meantime, I tend to frequent those places where I find both taste and nutrition . . . I strive to use portion control at those times when I choose to eat more calorie-laden options. I've been known to pack a small sriracha sauce condiment with me when I top my taco salad (without the shell) so I can spice up the extra salsa I request. I'd like to find a way to discreetly carry a condiment kit. Report
Many of the chain restaurants don't seem to have very good Lite Choice menu items. The food is bland, poorly cooked, and just not very appetizing. But there are restaurants that have excellent menu items that I can adapt to make healthier. For example, I rarely order fish when I eat out, unless I know a restaurant is know for their fresh fish. I LOVE fish, and don't get it enough at home (only once a week), so I always look for fish on the menu when I eat out. I look for it to be broiled or baked, and I always ask that it NOT be baked in butter or a cream sauce. If I am getting a chicken or steak meal, I ask for no sauce on it, and ask for the salad dressing for my salad to arrive on the side. I will size up my entree when it arrives (even if I order an appetizer as my entree), and determine if it is 2 or 3 servings. Then, I will make a mental line, or use my knife to delineate, how much I am going to eat. Once I eat that amount, I ask the waitstaff for a To Go container. I figure I am saving money no matter how much I spend on an entree, because it will stretch for me to 2 or 3 meals. So it doesn't matter if it is an $18 fish plate, because I'll eat $9 worth at the restaurant, and the other $9 at the next meal. That's worth it to me!

Also, I steer clear of anything fried, battered, or covered in sauce. I like to eat my food nearly "naked!" Just good spices and fresh veggies for me. I often don't even eat the starch (potato or rice) because I can spot potato-flake potatoes or instant rice at 20 paces. I really prefer whole grain rice (not white), and baked potatoes, which cannot be hidden as dehydrated food and rehydrated for my consumption! Report
When I go out, I try to eat only chicken or fish(baked or grilled not fried). Sometimes I splurge a little but I only go out to eat 3 times (or less) a month. Report
I will admit, it does not make a difference to me. I do not eat out alot, therefore when I do, I get whatever I want. I don't think about calories or fat. For those who eat out more, having an healthier menu probably would be beneficial. Report
I would order it is they offered healthy selections. I did try Applebee's weigh watcher selection, but i left still feeling hungry. I ordered salmon that portion was about 3 oz. but the rice that came with it was about 1/4 cup and then they served a small portion of vegetables. Report
When we go to restaurants the first thing I for is the Healthy Alternatives selections. If they don't have it, I then look for the fish or chicken selections. Report
I would love it if more restaurants offered "healthier" fare. I would order the healthy meal if it looked yummy. it would depend on my mood.

I think most places are becoming more aware that some diners would like lighter options. There's a local seafood place I loved called the Weather Vane. They offer a selection of lite plates that are smaller versions of their entrees. Mind you, since it's fried food, it still packs a calorie wallop. But, it's an improvement over the gut buster specials.

These days, I do try to make good choices. Of course, since I rarely eat out, I may indulge a little. What I usually end up doing these days is taking home a doggie bag.

I love having left overs ! why enjoy a meal once when you can enjoy it twice ? !
I sometimes don't choose the healthy options because they sound disgusting. They need to focus on making not only healthy choices, but TASTY ones. We all know here on Spark, that that is not impossible. =) Report
I really wish more restaruants would offer healthier options, and more of a selection. Report
I went to Ruby Tuesday a few days ago. I did not see a "Smart Eating Choices" section in their menu. Report
Well, duh!

Partly because nobody has required a listing of nutritional values of menu offerings on the menus, and finding out what is in a dish from the server is often like extracting the teeth from a hen. First you have to find each tooth! Getting enough information to actually calculate nutritional values is often impossible! More, you can't count on what SOUNDS like the healthiest choice BEING the healthiest choice. (Good for Spark for offering opportunities to learn about that information.)

Require even ESTIMATED or APPROXIMATE nutritional information on menus and yes, restaurant owners will go up in arms about the extra work, but putting the info out there will help.

I often eat at Subway because they do this for me! Report
We don't have most chain restaurants where we live - when we eat out, I always mentally calculate calories before choosing my meal. I often have an appetizer and a salad - and never anything fried or in a cream sauce (which I've never liked anyway). If I get a big bowl of pasta, I eat the vegs and protein and half the pasta, then take the rest home. I also have no problem asking for substitutions, such as double vegs instead of a potato or rice.

I'll admit, dessert is my weakness - but I've learned that I'm okay with just half or even 1/4 of a dessert - so I'll order that ooey-gooey chocolate heaven and share (or just not finish it). Report
Be honest, when I am PAYING my hard earned money to eat in a restaurant, I want to eat what I want and not "DIET" so I understand why these people in the survey weren't concerned. If I am going to diet , then I'll eat at SUBWAY'S. Report
I don't think people are giving mixed messages when they tell restaurants that they want more nutritious food AND they want it to taste good. There is nothing worse then feeling like you got the worst meal at the table but you stuck to your calorie budget. I'm all for healthy options at restaurants but if I'm paying for a meal out I still want it to be an interesting tasty meal and not just some uninspired salad they slapped on the menu. Report
Personally, I try to choose the healthy alternative. The problem is they ARE more expensive!! I also find that a lot of time they don't appeal to me. I simply don't eat out as much since I decided to lose weight. You just don't really know what you are getting on your plate in a restaurant. Report
Well, maybe it's just me, but when I eat out, I've usually banked the calories for a splurge by eating very well the rest of the day/week or working out extra, etc. That doesn't mean I'm going to order the least healthy thing on the menu: I'm still unlikely to choose fried food or cream sauces, because they don't appeal to me as much anymore. But if I've banked the calories for a burger and fries, I'd much rather eat that out than keep the ingredients around at home for unhealthy eating. The truth is, at most restaurants, a salad isn't going to use ingredients that are as fresh as those I use at home, and even ordering the dressing on the side, I can make a tastier, healthier version of that at home, too. When I spend the money on eating out, I want it to be something I can't do better myself, easily, with ingredients I commonly keep on hand. And that's simply not true for salads or grilled chicken, you know?

I do always check the healthy options, and will choose salads in some locations, especially if they feature interesting combinations or ingredients. But I'm open to other things too, and eat out infrequently enough that it's okay to choose other options sometimes. Report
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