All about dining out

Posted May 28, 2012, at 1:03 p.m.

What’s hot in restaurant food trends?

You may think farm-to-table organic creations or fancy dishes with international flair, but the big numbers go to more basic foods. Oatmeal is up. Bread is down. But pizza is up.

We’re ordering fewer peas and corn and want more fresh fruit. And chips have become the No. 1 requested side dish when Americans eat out.

“Chips are the food of the decade,” said Harry Balzar of the NPD Group, a Chicago-based marketing firm that keeps an eye on what we eat and drink. “Chip consumption at restaurants is up 9 percent over the past 10 years. And there’s a big variety of chips. Sea salt, baked, whole grain or garden chips.”

While the biggest serving of glamour and glory in the culinary world may go to gourmet chefs, what happens in the fast-food sector far outweighs the rest of the industry.

“Want to know the fastest-growing appliance associated with food choices today?” asked Balzar, speaking at the Food Marketing Institute’s annual convention. “It’s the car window.”

Snapshots of our food life

Even though the fast-food lane is busy, NPD’s research finds that 60 percent of folks say they want to lose 20 pounds but ironically state they don’t want to diet.

“So how’s that going to work?” said Balzar. And the definition of what’s healthy to eat has changed from low-fat or high-fiber to “avoiding harmful substances” as a key concern.

“It’s what they don’t want in their food that matters. And one of the biggies is gluten, with 27 percent avoiding it whether they have a true gluten intolerance or not.”

Keeping tabs on what customers are hungry for helps food-service outlets plan what’s on the menu. According to NPD, we spent nearly half, or 47 percent, of our food dollars away from home.

That includes traditional eateries, supermarket chef-prepared foods and a growing list of nonfood places to grab something to eat such as the corner drug store.

Meals and money

The recession has taken a bite out of overall restaurant sales nationwide and, according to the 2012 Zagat Survey, Atlantans have cut back on the number of times they eat out to 3.2 times a week from 3.7 times in 2008.

But it’s nice to note that the Zagat Survey also reveals Atlantans are still among the nation’s top tippers when they dine out, with the average tip at 19.4 percent — up a bit since 2008. Zagat lists San Francisco and Seattle diners with the lowest average percent tip (18.6 percent) and New Orleans diners as the most generous (19.7 percent).

Tips on improving tips

To help your server serve you best, here are a few tips on getting the healthy foods you crave.

• Signal your intentions: Be specific about what you want or don’t want. For example, “Can you lightly brush the fish with butter?” or “Ask the chef not to salt my food.”

• Dine defensively: Be honest when the waiter asks you how you like your meal. Don’t suffer in silence.

• Use your mirrors: Check out the room. Look around and see what other diners are eating so you get a visual on portion sizes. Way too large? Split the entree or plan to box up half for carry-out.

• Oh, waiter … : Make eye contact, smile and appreciate your server. Waiters are likely to spend more time at friendly tables. Tip for good service when the server goes to the mat for your special order request. They’re not doing it for their health — even if you are. Let them know they will be rewarded ahead of time by saying, “If you help us eat a little less, we’ll tip you a little more.” Smaller hips, bigger tips.

• Enjoy the ride: Make dining out a special occasion and enjoy the conversation as much as the cuisine.

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” Email her at carolyn@carolynoneil.com.

© 2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

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