Food and nutrition literacy guide for health conscious restaurants

Editorial Team

9 min read
Chef chopping vegetables

For restaurant diners today, food quality ranks as the most important factor when customers choose where to dine, according to a recent survey of 2,600 diners. Many factors affect food quality, from the freshness of ingredients used, to where they’re sourced from, to how sustainable the ingredient sourcing process is.

As customers have access to more information than ever before about the quality of their food, many are becoming more nutrition-conscious and more interested in healthy eating habits. A 2022 survey by McKinsey & Company of 8,000 consumers found:

  • 70% of consumers want to be healthier.
  • 50% of consumers say healthy food choices are a top priority for them. Strategies include reducing consumption of sugar and processed foods, as well as reduced consumption of fat, salt, and red meat.
  • Younger consumers, particularly those ages 18 to 24, are most likely to have a longer list of avoidable food ingredients due to reported food allergies and intolerances.

Knowing that more consumers are paying attention to nutrition and health, restaurant owners have a significant opportunity to improve their food and nutrition literacy efforts. As health-conscious dining becomes increasingly in demand, here’s how both “healthy” restaurants and restaurants without a health-conscious focus can make positive changes in the quality of their food.

What is food literacy?

According to the Food Literacy Center, the food literacy definition is understanding the impact of food choices on health, the environment, and the economy. It also includes an understanding that these impacts are not experienced equitably. For example, residents living in “food deserts” likely have less access to freshly grown produce and affordable healthy food options.

Why is food literacy important? More consumers today are increasingly interested in how food choices impact both their personal health and the planet’s sustainability. For example, a 2022 study by Restaurant Dive found 43% of diners would pay more for restaurant takeout that prioritizes sustainability strategies, while 56% of diners want restaurants to be more open about their eco-friendly strategies. The study also found 47% of diners would consider changing their order to be more sustainable.

Restaurant owners may have noticed in recent years that more diners are asking questions about where ingredients are sourced from and how they’re stored and prepared. A focus on food literacy in a restaurant’s culture can help businesses meet diners’ needs, while the restaurant moves toward more sustainable practices.

What is nutrition literacy?

According to the National Institutes of Health, nutrition literacy refers to the extent to which individuals are able to obtain, process, and understand nutrition information in order to make positive nutrition decisions.

Nutrition literacy has become more important to diners today. A 2022 survey by Statista found half of Americans claim they’re trying to “eat healthy,” with 58% of baby boomers and 51% of millennials and Gen X making that claim. That’s led to an increase in researching nutritional information while dining in, as well as during the restaurant consideration phase, when diners research menu items online before choosing a restaurant to dine at.

Today’s consumers are also increasingly aware about allergens contained within food. According to McKinsey & Company, 25% of Americans avoid allergens in food they buy. Food allergies are on the rise, as the number of American children who experience food allergies has grown 4x faster than the population has for at least 20 years.

A study on food allergens published in “Sage Journals” concluded restaurants should increase efforts to disclose allergen information, including on websites. The study concluded there’s an opportunity to attract new customers through enhanced allergen communication efforts that go beyond regulatory minimums.

Other nutrition information, such as the number of calories per dish, can help diners make more informed decisions on what they order from restaurants. Restaurant owners can promote nutrition literacy among restaurant staff, so those who serve customers can provide nutritional information including allergens and other nutritional facts that can enhance the service they provide.

Food literacy programs

A food literacy program is an educational initiative that teaches others about various food ingredients, where they come from, and how they’re sourced. There are many local food literacy programs throughout the country that focus on educating young people, between elementary school to college ages, by teaching topics such as mindful eating, plant-based nutrition, fermentation, and farming methods.

Restaurants can create their own food literacy initiatives in several ways. These include:

  1. Take staff on a field trip to meet local ingredient suppliers and see how ingredients are sourced.
  2. Create and tend to a restaurant garden that provides various menu ingredients.
  3. Partner with a local food literacy program to bring in a food literacy expert to talk to staff. For example, the Food Literacy Center based in Sacramento, California, partners with local restaurants to create seasonal menu concepts.
  4. Attend local food literacy meetings with restaurant staff. For example, the Food Access & Literacy Work Group in Alexandria, Virginia, meets every month to discuss topics like nutrition education programs.

As you add new ingredients to your supplies list and create new menu items for your restaurant, you can also improve your food literacy efforts by thoroughly training staff. Give servers and other restaurant professionals the opportunity to taste ingredients and dishes to better understand where those ingredients were sourced from.

More food knowledge is better for business, as servers can share tidbits that help diners make a greater connection to their food. Those efforts could result in increased sales for your restaurant.

Nutrition literacy initiatives

As most Americans are at least trying to eat healthier, it’s also good for restaurant businesses to integrate healthy options on their menus. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration recommends that restaurants make calorie information available to help consumers make informed nutritional decisions. You can display this on a website, as well as directly on a menu diners see inside a restaurant.

The Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also have a wealth of information and resources for food service businesses, including a Food Service Guidelines Implementation Toolkit that helps restaurants introduce healthier food and beverage choices on menus. The CDC presents several case studies on the positive impact of improving healthy food availability in food service, including increased profits and substantial growth in sales.

To improve nutrition literacy in a restaurant, owners can also:

  1. Build strong relationships with suppliers to gain a deeper understanding of ingredients and sourcing methods. Communicate this knowledge to team members, who can share that knowledge with diners.
  2. Source high-quality, local ingredients, which reduces a carbon footprint and ensures ingredients arrive fresher and faster.
  3. Highlight nutrition on menus, by listing ingredients, allergens, and suppliers, where relevant.

A major benefit of sourcing ingredients from local suppliers is the ability to build business partnerships in your local network. For example, if your restaurant uses bread from a local baker, you can feature the bakery’s name on your menu. The bakery can promote your business as one of their clients, which is a win-win for both of your businesses.

Sourcing and sustainability

Sustainable sourcing contributes greatly to food and nutrition literacy efforts but what does sustainably sourced mean? It means when choosing suppliers, a restaurant considers social, environmental, and ethical factors that relate to the supplier.

For example, a restaurant may choose to source organic ingredients from a local farm that doesn’t use pesticides, which could harm food ingredient quality. A restaurant may choose to update its menu each season to focus on using seasonal ingredients that can improve food quality and have the potential to lower costs.

Beyond sourcing, many restaurants focus on reducing food waste to both keep food costs low and to help enhance sustainability. In some places, such as California, some food service providers are legally required to donate surplus food they’d otherwise dispose of to food recovery organizations.

Restaurants can also highlight food waste reduction strategies in marketing efforts and in dining establishments to build customer loyalty. If you frequently have surplus food, you can either create strategies to reduce food waste and lower food costs, and/or partner with a local nonprofit to donate surplus food to.

Training and education for staff

As you implement food and nutrition literacy initiatives in your restaurant, share your efforts with your staff. They’re the ones who often have the most front-line access to customers, so ensure they’re up to date on efforts that could positively impact customer sentiment.

The more immersive the training is, the more impactful it could be. Empower staff to taste ingredients and new menu dishes. Share information on suppliers. Make nutritional information and ingredient lists transparent to customers and staff, so everyone knows the impact each dish can have on someone’s diet.

Customer engagement and education

Sharing details about the quality of your food and menu’s nutrition can help engage customers, especially those who are already health conscious. Healthy eating can make customers feel better about their food choices, so make sure to:

  1. Promote local supplier information. Explore partnership opportunities that benefit both your restaurant and the supplier.
  2. Share nutritional information on your restaurant website and on menus in a restaurant.
  3. Be proactive about communicating allergen information on all menu items.

Some restaurants go above and beyond in promoting health and wellness to customers. For example, restaurants may be interested in hosting healthy cooking or mocktail classes. You might offer a promotional campaign that offers deals on your healthiest menu items.

Pay attention to customer feedback, both in a restaurant and online, and on review sites like Yelp. You can find customer opinions on your healthy menu items, so you know if customers enjoy the taste or if you should make a bigger effort to tweak recipe development. Ask for recipe feedback from your staff, as well, as they will likely have a lot of experience tasting your menu items.

Food and nutrition literacy becomes easier with the right tools

With access to more information than ever before, today’s knowledgeable diners are doing more research and asking more questions about where their food comes from, what ingredients are used, and how the dish is made. Your restaurant should proactively anticipate diner requests by integrating food and nutritional literacy into your operations.

You can improve food and nutrition literacy in your restaurant with the right POS system. POS technology can allow you to customize menu items to a customer’s exact preferences, create menu categories that cater to diners with specific allergens or nutritional needs, and improve communication between the front of house and back of house, so your chefs get every order precisely right.

Why wait? Get started with a Clover restaurant POS system today to elevate your business.

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