Breakfast represents an opportunity to introduce better-for-you menu items, Technomic said. Cracker Barrel recently added a Wholesome Fixin's menu of reduced-calorie options.

CHICAGO — How consumers define healthy dining varies widely. For 9% of restaurant patrons, items with a gluten-free claim are perceived as better-for-you, while 39% say dishes with more fruits and vegetables represent sensible choices, according to new research from Mintel, Chicago. Another 34% of consumers link wellness with sodium reduction, and 37% consider lower-calorie fare as lighter options.

While preparation of a dish remains the top indicator of health for consumers, reduced sugar and sodium claims may be losing meaning on menus. Meanwhile, whole grains and functional ingredients are getting lost in the shuffle, Mintel said.

To better position better-for-you items, operators should use enticing language and familiar ingredients. Thirty-eight per cent of consumers are more likely to order a healthy item with an appealing menu description, and 27% said they choose healthy meals if they recognize what’s in it.

“For consumers who are often on the fence for healthy or indulgent eating, familiarity can help ease them into healthier choices, rather than alienating them with superfoods they have not heard of or have a reputation for lackluster taste,” said Katrina Fajardo, food service analyst at Mintel. “One of the possible reasons for consumers’ indecisiveness on healthy foods in food service is the fact that food service still has the stigma of being unhealthy, regardless of what is ordered. As a result of the numerous exposes showing the real caloric counts in salads, sandwiches, and other menu items deemed as ‘healthy,’ consumers are conflicted with the idea that a restaurant could offer real, healthy items. In addition, the overwhelming amount of healthy-eating knowledge available for consumers can be overbearing, and skew the way they are personally defining health. For operators, this is a difficult position to be in. However, if the menu items are described well, and are made with familiar items, it could help entice customers who are seeking a healthy meal.”

Attitudes about eating out also differ among consumers. About a quarter of adults are not interested in eating healthfully in restaurants because they view dining out as an opportunity to indulge. Another 24% said they typically seek healthy meals but opt for heartier fare instead.

“While this may sound like operators don’t necessarily need to pander toward the health-minded visitors, there is still a sizeable number of consumers who are willing to purchase healthy foods,” Ms. Fajardo said. “Operators who do not have a foundation in healthy offerings should continue to offer their traditional fare, but create menu items that are either lower-calorie items, customized versions of main meals, or add locally-sourced or organic ingredients to items in order to boost consumer’s perceptions of health on the menu without needing a full menu overhaul.”

Many restaurant chains, including Cracker Barrel, Firehouse Subs and The Cheesecake Factory, recently have added lighter options to lunch and dinner menus. Better-for-you items and ingredients are rising on breakfast menus, too, but opportunities still remain for the fast-growing day part, and healthy snacking is underdeveloped in restaurants, Mintel said.

While low-carb has lost momentum on menus, alternative grains and gluten-free have increased across appetizers, entrees and desserts. Additionally, with more consumers seeking health benefits from beverages, smoothies and lemonades are making a bigger splash.