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QSRs increase nutrition with customization and low-calorie choices

3 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

It used to be that if you wanted a quickserve restaurant to leave butter off your bun, everyone in the restaurant had to know about it. The cashier would have to communicate your healthy intention by screaming, “No butter on the bun!” to the employee preparing your sandwich, letting all fellow diners know about your special request. Back in those days, the request wasn’t common. Most people weren’t as health conscious as they are today, and it’s possible that many didn’t even know about butter slathered on grilled buns. Today, however, worries about our waistline and nutrition are increasingly mainstream, and there are special buttons at the register that let QSRs customize your order — omit butter, put dressing on the side or give pizza a gluten-free crust — without making it public knowledge.

In a session at the Academy of Nutrition and DieteticsFood & Nutrition Conference & Expo titled “Making a Difference: Improving Nutrition at QSRs,” registered dietitian Jo Lichten cited increased ease of customization as one of several ways QSRs are increasing nutrition in their offerings. Lichten freely admitted to dining at quickserve restaurants, even during recent trips to Ireland and Spain. “You may think it’s crazy, a registered dietitian who goes to Europe and eats at a fast-food restaurant,” she said. “But deep down inside, I’m just an average Jo.”

Lichten said being informed about offerings at popular QSRs can be important to dietitians because many clients probably eat at quickserve restaurants, at least on occasion. People turn to QSRs for value and convenience, especially when they don’t have time to cook or worry that cooking for one might lead to waste or overindulgence. “If I’m craving a burger, I don’t make it at home,” Lichten said. “If I made it at home, I’d make too many burgers. I’d be eating them today, tomorrow.” Grabbing a fast-food burger means she eats only what she buys, and “I don’t have to do the dishes.”

Lichten also likes that QSRs offer a range of options when it comes to calories, so someone who wants a high-calorie meal can certainly be satisfied, but there are options for those looking to keep things light. “I appreciate the fact that I can go to a quickservice restaurant and order off the kids’ menu,” she said. A typical children’s-menu hamburger has about 300 calories, and most QSRs won’t bat an eye at an adult who wants a kids’ meal. Some casual-dining establishments deny children’s entrees to anyone older than 12, forcing adults to stick with regular entrees, which are increasingly oversize and calorie dense.

Some QSRs are making progress in increasing nutrition on the regular and children’s menus. As McDonald’s Senior Director of Nutrition Cynthia Goody said during the session, the quickserve superpower has revamped kids’ meals, adding apple slices and milk, and has cut sodium by 11% in items including chicken nuggets and sandwich buns. McDonald’s is looking for more ways to increase nutrition, while making sure it doesn’t sacrifice flavor. “Taste is predominant; that’s what people come to us for,” Goody said. Lichten expressed a similar sentiment: “We’re always looking for foods that are not only feasible for the layout of the restaurant but that our customers want to eat.”