13 Trends and Issues to Watch in 2013: Better-for-You Food and Food for Special Diets

Consumers might not want healthy food, but they want the option on the menu, when possible. Fresher vegetables, good-for-you oils and wholesome, less processed ingredients, combined with more from-scratch cooking for that authentic taste, more nutritious eating has taken hold in all sectors, and especially in schools as a result of new regulations.

Better-For-You-FoodSince First Lady Michelle Obama launched her "Let's Move" campaign and the federal government released new dietary guidelines and school lunch requirements, the drive to source, produce and serve healthier, more wholesome meals has rapidly increased. The National Restaurant Association's Kids LiveWell program, which requires that participating restaurants pledge to serve a certain balance of healthier meal options, now includes 113 brands representing 30,000 locations nationwide.

"Better for you is definitely a trend, or rather, an ongoing trend," says Mary Chapman, director of product innovation for Technomic. "For a long time consumers have been saying they want healthy food on menus." According to the research firm's Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report, 64 percent of consumers agree that it is important to eat healthy and pay attention to nutrition. At the same time, though, they're more likely to eat healthy at home than at restaurants. But they seem to at least want the option of a few healthier dishes, and for business lunchers and travelers, this is something they're seeking out, Chapman says.

Newer concepts like Elevation Burger, Energy Kitchen, salad-focused Freshii, wholesome-eating LYFE Kitchen and True Food Kitchen cater to this emerging trend. While menu-labeling legislation already impacts chains with more than 20 locations, in 2013, there is a possibility for expanded regulation in that regard, which would include smaller chains. "So that's something to watch, and it might have an impact on how people order," Chapman says.

Vegetarianism, veganism and meatless eating, even among non-vegetarians, has also spiked, evident by the success of Moaz Vegetarian and Native Foods Café. And gluten-free dining and foods are becoming more prevalent, with "gluten-free items now positioned as simply better-for-you choices generally perceived by consumers to be lighter fare," Chapman says.

From a front-of-the-house service model, "customization concepts have come out of this more wholesome approach to eating," says Aaron Noveshen, founder and president of The Culinary Edge, a restaurant consultancy in San Francisco. Nothing says "light" or "low-calorie" anywhere, but order-takers and kitchens need to get used to customers wanting to switch up their sauces, toppings, fillings, add-ons and other food options to create their own healthier meals. This might mean fewer fryers and charbroilers in place of a bigger need for larger refrigerated prep tables or more undercounter refrigeration at an ordering line. It might also require more prep and refrigeration space in general as more operators look to create their own sauces, salads, sides and from scratch rather than buy pre-processed, often sugar- and sodium-riddled foodservice products, Noveshen says.

Some chefs and operators now use smoking, brining, braising and steaming as alternative cooking techniques for frying and charbroiling. Chef Floyd Cardoz of North End Grill says he uses a wood-burning rotisserie grill and indoor wood-burning smoker oven to slow-cook meats and seafood and "avoid charred pieces of meat but still achieve the same flavor." Using different types of wood can also impart subtle flavor differences without added fats, sugars or excess salt, he says.

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