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Strategic Calorie Design: Moving Beyond the Obvious

If you were working for a large restaurant chain and a menu developer asked you for advice on how to reduce calories in the top-selling menu items, what advice would you provide? This may seem like an easy question to address, but the complexities of working for large, publicly traded companies make answering questions like this more challenging.

I worked for The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) for seven years as a full-time employee. Most of my work there focused on continuing education for culinary and foodservice professionals. In 2010, I helped launch the CIA Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative (HMC), a group of 40 volume foodservice leaders who collaborate to identify and explore nonproprietary culinary insights, applications, strategies, and solutions that can help volume foodservice operations offer a broader range of delicious, nutritious menu options. Today I manage this initiative on a contract basis.

About one-third of HMC members are RDs, and the rest are culinary professionals. Member companies include Chick-Fil-A, Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Panera, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and Subway.

Members focus their efforts in the following areas:

  • sodium reduction;
  • increasing use of produce;
  • improving carbohydrate quality;
  • improving protein quality; and
  • strategic calorie design.

When calorie labeling on menus for chains with more than 20 units nationwide became a mandate, HMC members started to panic. While they knew they were making headway on issues like sodium reduction and using more produce, they were all concerned about how their guests would react to calorie information.

I worked closely with members of the Strategic Calorie Design Working Group to develop a list of 15 strategies HMC members could use when thinking about calorie reduction on their menus.

  1. Principles: What will guide you? Will you set a calorie maximum for each menu category? Will you set a goal to reduce calories by a certain percentage?
  2. Product mix: How much of your menu do you want to be healthful and balanced vs indulgent?
  3. Partners: Who can you partner with to promote your more healthful menu offerings? The American Heart Association Heart Check program, the National Restaurant Association Kids LiveWell program, and are all good options.
  4. Portions: Can you downsize portions of an entire item? Can you downsize portions of more calorically dense ingredients?
  5. Proportions: Can you change the proportions of ingredients in a dish to reduce total calories? This may be a better strategy for diners who won’t accept a smaller portion.
  6. Preparation: Can you use a different preparation technique to reduce calories?
  7. Processing: Can you use ingredients that have been processed differently to save calories? Batter-coated French fries absorb less oil during frying.
  8. Presentation: Can you use a different plate, bowl, glass, or take-out container that changes the perception of how much food a guest is receiving? The work of Brian Wansink, PhD, at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab provides research-based guidance.
  9. Produce: Can you use produce as a strategy for reducing calories? Using 2 tablespoons avocado as a creamy spread on a sandwich compared with mayonnaise saves 150 kcal.
  10. Protein: Can you change the type or amount of protein you’re using? Serving fish tacos made with 3.5 oz of halibut compared with salmon saves 120 kcal.
  11. Power: Can you present information in more compelling ways so consumers make more informed choices?
  12. Promotion: Can you use media, menus, marketing, and team members to promote lower-calorie options?
  13. Pleasure: Can you enhance the visual appeal of more healthful options to entice the diner?
  14. Price: Can you set a pricing strategy that makes the more healthful choice more appealing?
  15. Profitability: Can you increase profitability by saving money on food costs (eg, reduce the portion of higher-calorie, higher-priced ingredients)?

Few restaurants will employ every strategy in their efforts to provide more better-for-you, lower-calorie options to diners, but using even a few strategies will help ensure diners have choice and restaurants can stay competitive in a rapidly changing dining world. I’m very proud of the work being done by members of the Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative, and I’m excited to see how chain restaurant menus will continue to improve in the future.

— Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, is an award-winning dietitian, farmer’s daughter, highly regarded public speaker, published author, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc, an agriculture, food, and culinary communications firm located in Carmichael, California. Her clients include The Culinary Institute of America, for which she serves as director of the CIA Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative.

2 Comment

  1. Amy, I like and use alliteration; your list of 15 Ps is impressive! Agree that some of these strategies go beyond the obvious and some are even adaptable to the home setting. I’m encouraged to read that so many volume foodservice leaders are part of the HMC.

    1. Pat, thanks for the comments. I’m a bit obsessed with alliteration. =)

      I’m so pleased you can see how the strategies can be applied in many parts of our lives. I’ll be leading the CIA Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative meeting in the Napa Valley next week, and I’m looking forward to collecting more “good work” stories from foodservice industry culinary and nutrition leaders!


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