Let's hope the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new MyPlate food icon works as intended. It's meant to create an indelible image in the minds of your customers about how much food, in what proportions, constitutes a healthful meal. An unintended consequence is that it may also give creative operators an opportunity to lower their food costs while holding up their end of the nutritional bargain.
MyPlate replaces the brightly colored MyPyramid graphic, which was long on decoration and short on information when it came to eating choice recommendations. The MyPlate image gives consumers straightforward visual cues about which quantities of which food groups they should eat.
“With so many food options available to consumers, it is often difficult to determine the best foods to put on our plates when building a healthy meal,” says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “MyPlate is an uncomplicated symbol to help remind people to think about their food choices in order to lead healthier lifestyles. This effort is about more than just giving information, it is a matter of making people understand there are options and practical ways to apply them to their daily lives.”
The good news from a restaurant operator's perspective is that the USDA is emphasizing options that are inexpensive to buy. The key takeaways from the MyPlate graphic are that half of any meal should consist of fruits and vegetables and a little more than a quarter of it should feature grains (with half of those grains being whole grains). The protein portion is relegated to the remaining space on the plate. Which is to say, the USDA is recommending that the part of the meal that constitutes the lion's share of a restaurant's food cost — animal protein — be deemphasized, while ingredients that cost significantly less — grains, vegetables and fruits — are used more frequently.
So will your customers actually choose to eat this way? They will if the USDA has its way. It's launching a massive PR assault encouraging them to do so. It consists of what the USDA says are “tested, actionable messages that will be the ‘how-tos’ for consumer behavior change. A multi-year campaign calendar will focus on one action-prompting message at a time starting with ‘Make Half Your Plate Fruits and Vegetables.’”
Vilsack is confident it's going to work.
“What we have learned over the years is that consumers are bombarded by so many nutrition messages that it makes it difficult to focus on changes that are necessary to improve their diet,” he says. “This new campaign calendar will help unify the public and private sectors and highlight one desired change for consumers at a time.”
Luckily, USDA is starting with the message that should have the biggest impact on your food costs. We say full-service restaurant operators should embrace this aspect of the MyPlate initiative. It's going to require strong culinary skills to create fruit and vegetable options sexy enough to entice consumers, and that gives full-service a big leg up.
As for quick-service and fast casual restaurants, fruits and vegetables haven't been their forte. Neither segment is known for balanced plates, or even having plates. We hope full-service operators offer specials that will leverage the MyPlate effort to your benefit.