Slideshow: Fitter fare in focus

by Monica Watrous
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Click for a slideshow of lower-calorie dishes at chain restaurants.

KANSAS CITY – While “gravy-smothered” and “chicken-fried” describe some of the signature dishes on Cracker Barrel’s menu, the casual-dining chain took a different turn in August with its first major launch in a decade.

Billed as “homestyle meals with a lighter twist,” Cracker Barrel’s Wholesome Fixin’s menu includes 10 meals under 600 calories, including multigrain french toast with fruit and a honey citrus yogurt sauce, pecan-crusted catfish and buttermilk oven-baked chicken.

Responding to heavier interest in lighter dining, more restaurant chains are luring health-conscious consumers with lower-calorie menus.

“With Cracker Barrel, it hasn’t traditionally been part of their wheelhouse, so that’s not necessarily something you would have expected,” said Maeve Webster, senior director at the market research firm Datassential. “But I think because the restaurant industry in general is really under attack for its role, rightly or wrongly, in the situation for this country with regard to weight and other health issues, and it absolutely across the board has to respond.”

Applebee’s was an early leader in launching lighter menus when it added its Weight Watchers-endorsed options in 2004 and an Under 550 Calories menu in 2010. The casual-dining chain said its lighter selections have been a hit among even those who aren’t counting calories. Applebee’s signature sirloin with garlic herb shrimp, an item on the Under 550 Calories menu, was its most popular item a couple of years ago, said Peter Czizek, vice-president of menu development and innovation.

In creating lower-calorie dishes, Applebee’s has learned that size matters – both in flavor and in portion.

“We focus on things like fresh zucchini, potatoes and onions that are grilled and sautéed with barely anything to let the natural flavor come through,” Mr. Czizek said. “Adding a hint of citrus can also add great flavor without added calories, and generous portions of mushrooms can add meaty texture without extra fat.”

Indeed, more operators have been packing plates with produce and protein to compose a hearty portion with fewer calories and fat, Ms. Webster said.

“Adding more filling ingredients, more whole grains, more proteins can make a meal as satisfying without significantly increasing calories,” she said. “Maybe cutting back on the carbohydrates but increasing something else, so the composition of the dish might not seem radically different, but you can make some pretty significant cuts in calories.”

In developing its Simple and Fit menu, IHOP has required “ongoing innovation, whether it is pairing with Quaker oatmeal to develop a proprietary recipe or creating an entire line of breakfast items – pancakes, waffles and crepes – that are made with whole wheat,” said Marie Grimm, vice-president of menu development and innovation at IHOP.

Rather than featuring a separate section for slimmer specials on its menu, IHOP integrates the lower-calorie options among other offerings.

“Our feeling is that if a guest decides that he or she is hungry for an omelet, they should be able to find all the different ways the omelet is available, and that includes, among many others, one that is under 600 calories and equally delicious,” Ms. Grimm said.

Presentation and menu descriptors carry weight when selling a lighter dish.

“If you’re going to choose to eat off of the light menu, you don’t want to feel like you’re getting less of a meal,” Ms. Webster said. “Nobody wants to focus on all of the things they’re not getting; you want to focus on all of the things you are getting.”

Positive descriptors such as “premium,” “fresh” and “locally sourced” fare better with fit-focused consumers than “reduced sodium,” which some may associate with reduced taste.

“The minute you call something ‘low-sodium,’ the majority of consumers are going to back off of it,” Ms. Webster said.

As vegetables and whole grains stake a starring role on more plates – whether considered light or not – the lines have begun to blur.

“I do think ultimately light menus will become less important to the menu because there’s so much work being done to make the whole menu more approachable and better-for-you to varying degrees,” Ms. Webster said. “You are beginning to see a lot of these more healthy items do very well, even though the item they’re incorporated into isn’t necessarily identified as ‘healthy’ – like quinoa, kale is growing like crazy; a lot of different produce that you can’t imagine 10 years ago anybody would be excited to eat. Brussels sprouts and Swiss chard are really becoming stars of the menu. And that’s not just on the light menu – that’s across the board.”
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