Why Don’t Restaurants Make Their Food Healthier?

If your go-to fast food restaurants and casual sit-down chains started offering more menu options that were good for you, would you eat them?

You probably said ‘yes’ in your head immediately without a second thought. But if McDonald’s gave you a choice between a Big Mac and a sandwich made with fresh vegetables, whole-grain bread, and low-fat cheese, would you really say no to the burger?

Cost is a major factor when companies decide what to serve their customers. But it isn’t the only reason you generally won’t find a healthy meal in a drive-through line.

A longer shelf life brings in more cash

Hamburger

Hamburger | Nitrub/iStock/Getty Images

Cheap food doesn’t go to waste — at least not as easily as fresh food. Restaurants can purchase and store inventory for longer periods of time when it’s loaded with preservatives and similar ingredients. That’s how fast food chains stay in business: purchasing food for cheap, selling it for cheap,

Fresh ingredients don’t last long. If they don’t get used right away, they usually have to be thrown out — and that’s not cost-effective when you’re trying to run a business.

Smaller, locally-owned restaurants can operate differently, bringing in fresh food and making it part of their brand. McDonald’s can’t make that work. But companies aren’t the only barrier.

People say they want healthier options but don’t mean it

“If only fast food were healthier” is a phrase commonly spoken but rarely acted upon when the dream becomes a reality.

When given the choice between an unhealthy entreé or side dish and a healthier alternative, consumers usually go for the former. It’s not likely that someone will swap out less healthy ingredients for something healthier, either.

Restaurants won’t serve food people aren’t going to eat. They focus their efforts on things people do want — such as authentic ingredients and plant-based meals — even if the end product doesn’t actually turn out to be healthier.

‘Fresh’ doesn’t always mean ‘healthy’

Chicken caesar salad

Chicken caesar salad | Philly077/iStock/Getty Images

Restaurants such as Panera Bread try their best to offer their customers items made with fresh, healthy ingredients. But there’s still one problem plaguing establishments across the United States: portion size. It doesn’t matter how healthy a sandwich is. If it’s almost too big to fit on the plate, it’s still not making anyone healthier.

Why are restaurants portions so big? Because companies figured out that by offering larger portions, they could charge more without spending a lot more. Restaurants that served larger portions made more money than those that didn’t. So they all started doing it.

Now it’s what Americans expect when they sit down at their favorite establishments. Like offering healthier options, offering smaller sizes doesn’t usually work when larger portions are available.

What works: Making subtle changes that are easy to miss

There are many possible reasons most people don’t eat healthier when dining out — even when given the chance to do so. The default is always the easiest choice. And when you’re used to seeing a side of fries with your burger, it almost seems wrong to choose apple slices instead.

Technically, restaurants like McDonald’s are a lot healthier than they used to be. Saying no to trans fats and artificial ingredients looks great on paper and makes for profitable marketing campaigns. These changes also don’t tend to alter the familiar look or taste of the foods people keep coming back for.

This also takes away people’s need to choose. You wouldn’t get a McDonald’s hamburger made with trans fat even if you asked for one. The option is unavailable. The healthier option is the default.

Restaurants don’t offer healthier options because, in most cases, it isn’t cost-effective, and people don’t actually want them no matter how much they say they do. There are ways to eat healthier when dining out, but it likely won’t be your healthiest option in the near future.

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