Providing nutritional information and highlighting healthier menu items can be one valuable way to set your menu apart from the competition. 

As of March 2018, restaurant chains with 20 or more units will be legally required to provide nutritional information on all of their menu items. This indicates a growing trend that will eventually impact smaller establishments, as guests will begin to expect this information on more menus. 

But how can a restaurant provide nutritional information, and is there a value in calling out specific healthy options on the menu? We have some insight to share that can help restaurant owners make these choices.

Why Bother?

Even though nutritional labeling will only be required of chain restaurants at first, guests will increasingly expect the information from restaurants of all types and sizes. For the most part, this will take the form of simple calorie callouts for menu items, though some restaurants may opt to provide additional information.

According to a recent AP-GfK poll, “A majority of Americans — 56 percent — favor requiring fast food restaurants to post calorie counts on menus, while 54 percent favor the calorie postings at sit-down restaurants and 52 percent favor the labels at prepared food counters at grocery stores,”. As guests attempt to make healthier decisions, the demand for nutritional information will continue to climb.

Including this information on your menus also creates a sense of trust between the guest and the establishment and suggests that you have your guests’ best interests at heart. It’s about equipping your guests to make informed decisions; whether they choose the quinoa salad or the double cheeseburger is up to them.

Where To Begin

The first step in providing nutritional info on your menus is creating standardized, precise recipes and training your cooks to follow them. Without a standard recipe, it’s impossible to provide accurate information. If you have a consistent menu, it’s essential to create recipes and methods for your cooks to be able to implement these dishes precisely. It benefits your bottom line, and your customers will appreciate always knowing what to expect.

Consider these three facts from the National Restaurant Association:

  • If a recipe doesn’t call for salt but a chef adds a pinch before serving a menu item, the sodium content could be understated by at least 100 to 200 milligrams.
  • If you use two tablespoons of oil in food preparation, rather than a single tablespoon a recipe calls for, you’ll understate calorie content by 120 calories and fat by 14 grams.
  • If your nutrition analysis is based on a 2-ounce serving of salad dressing, but you serve 2.5 ounces, your analysis will be off by 75 calories and 7 grams of fat.

Next, you must determine which menu items you plan to provide information for. You may not want to include every item on your menu, as this can be very costly. Instead, focus on dishes that are always on the menu and items that may appeal to guests looking for healthy options. 

Calling out healthy menu items can be as simple as it is to note items as vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free. Consider adding a mark to your menu to denote items as healthy choices, or create a specific section on the menu for items that have a high nutritional value. Just make sure that, when asked by customers, your servers can identify what makes these menu items good choices for health-conscious guests.

You may find that the ‘healthier’ menu items have higher caloric content than you imagined. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just make sure you provide some information to offset that fact, such as high protein content or inclusion of “superfoods” that may benefit the guest.

DIY vs. Outsourcing

Once you make the decision to provide nutritional information on your menu, you have two options: You can attempt to figure it out on your own, or you can outsource to either a professional or a program to do it for you.

While the DIY method may seem appealing from a financial perspective, it can be both time consuming and tedious for someone without proper training. Additionally, the likelihood of miscalculation is much higher. For restaurants that are legally required to provide nutritional information, making the investment in professional services is a smart move. The cost to come up with the information without the assistance of a scientist, plus printing menus that may need to be corrected later when errors are identified outweighs the cost of hiring a pro in the first place.

For the brave do-it-yourself-ers, the Department of Agriculture provides Food Composition Databases as a reference, and there are other searchable databases as well. Here’s a sample:

For restaurants who wish to outsource, there are food scientists all over the country who offer nutritional analysis of menu items. FoodLab, based in Long Beach, CA, offers straightforward pricing ($150 per menu item) as well as standardized recipe cards, and there’s an option to assess future minor changes to menu items for an additional $69.95. This is a pretty standard and fair rate across the industry, and you have the added bonus of accountability.

Programs like MenuCalc and ReciPal are available for a lower cost (MenuCalc offers a plan that’s $249/month for unlimited recipes, while ReciPal offers a $50/month plan for unlimited recipes), but both require some input from the restaurant and offer less in the way of accountability. However, these options are faster, and if you enter the data accurately, they can provide reliable results.

No matter how you do it, adding nutritional context to your menu can help customers make informed decisions, and that can make your restaurant stand out in a positive way, which is always a good thing.

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