As the restaurant industry adapts to smartphones and other mobile technology to meet the needs of on-the-go consumers, one company is making it easier to digitally wade through endless dining options with nutrition and health at top of mind.
Launched in the early 1990s, Healthy Dining began as a book publisher of healthful menu options offered at restaurants in the Southern California region. “That turned out to be, even way back then, really successful,” says Anita Jones-Mueller, founder and president of Healthy Dining. “People would really read the books for a lot of diabetes education programs and cardiac rehab programs, and weight loss places; then they got into Whole Foods and bookstores.”
Today, the company operates a website, Healthy Dining Finder, that allows users to search for nearby restaurants and view a list of dietitian-approved menu options with nutrition information and a selection of kid-friendly items backed by the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program. And as of late November, the Healthy Dining Finder is available in a GPS-enabled mobile format, delivering access to better-for-you food at 60,000 full-serve and quick-serve restaurant locations. Users can filter results by price and distance, as well as alphabetically.
“So many people are on the go, and in their hands, their phones give them all the information they need,” Jones-Mueller says. “All of the restaurants featured on Healthy Dining Finder have signed up for the program, and then our dietitians work with every single restaurant to identify the healthy dining criteria.”
The criteria is based on nutritional recommendations from the USDA, she says, and stresses lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and unsaturated fats. Entrées must have 750 calories or less, no more than 25 grams of fat, and no more than 8 grams of saturated fat. Appetizers must have less than 250 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 3 grams of saturated fat. Deep fried items are entirely excluded, save for a garnish like wonton strips. Healthy Dining Finder also highlights low-sodium items for those with specific dietary requirements.
“Our dietitians go over the criteria with restaurants, and if restaurants already have nutrition information, then we use that and do an accuracy check of that information,” Jones-Mueller says. “If they don’t have nutrition information, we help them establish that.”
Several mainstay quick-serve brands signed up with Healthy Dining early on, Jones-Mueller says, including Jack in the Box, Corner Bakery Café, and Blimpie. Though Jack in the Box may be better known for its burgers or tacos, the brand has 10 dietitian-approved options, including the Jr. Jack burger with 330 calories and 15 grams of fat, the Grilled Chicken Salad with 360 calories and 16 grams of fat, and the Chicken Fajita Pita with 320 calories and 11 grams of fat. Corner Bakery has 35 approved menu items and eight Kids LiveWell options, while sub brand Blimpie has 19 approved options.
New national and regional brands continue to join Healthy Dining as the service grows, Jones-Mueller says. Burger brand Red Robin is one such recent addition, with five approved menu options.
Healthy Dining goes beyond aggregating nutritional information to consumers, though—the company also aims to work within the industry to help restaurant brands improve their healthy offerings. “Our dietitians work with a lot of restaurants to help them establish accurate nutrition information,” Jones-Mueller says. “We also work with restaurants to help them identify allergens and glutens; that’s becoming a really big issue in the industry.”
Healthy Dining’s registered dietitians can work with a concept to find ways to cut sodium, fat, and calories, while still maintaining the full flavors diners crave.
“Restaurants are applying their culinary creativity and artistry to healthier options, so we’re finding that the healthy dining choices restaurants are offering are really satisfying to guests,” Jones-Mueller says. “They look great; they taste great; they’re filling and fulfilling.”
By Tamara Omazic