Although the restaurant industry is still waiting for the Food and Drug Administration to finalize rules on menu labeling for chains with 20 or more locations, which will likely include the posting of calorie counts, many chains are proactively promoting menu items that are less likely to expand waistbands.
During the Olympics, McDonald’s began promoting its “Favorites Under 400 Calories” menu platform, which the company said includes about 80 percent of national menu items, including classics like the Egg McMuffin, a medium order of fries, and a snack-size McFlurry with Oreos.
Wendy’s has a new mobile app that allows guests to select menu items under a certain number of calories or calculate the calories of a customized meal.
Even Carl’s Jr., the chain once known for indulgent burgers topped with pastrami or prime rib, now has on its website a section devoted to customizable “Better For You” options with a nutrition calculator to find what fits your diet.
Meanwhile, across the industry, the use of the term “low calorie” on menus increased 154 percent in 2011 compared to the prior year, according to research firm Technomic.
Here’s a look at the successful better-for-you menus at four restaurant chains — The Cheesecake Factory, Corner Bakery, Denny's and Einstein Bros. Bagels — including the best-selling items from each menu.
The Cheesecake Factory
The Cheesecake Factory expanded its popular SkinnyLicious menu options, all under 590 calories, since it was first introduced last year. Company officials say the lower-in-calorie platform has continued to be a strong seller as an alternative to the chain’s indulgent offerings.
Better-for-you best seller: The SkinnyLicious Burger line, featuring beef, grilledand veggie options.
Other popular items from the SkinnyLicious menu include:
• Freshly baked flatbreads, including the margherita; wild mushroom; sausage and ricotta; and roasted pear and blue cheese.
• Mushroom lettuce wraps with shiitake mushrooms, green onion, ginger, garlic and water chestnuts, sautéed with mushroom soy and served with crisp lettuce leaves.
• Santorini farro salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, red onion, feta and tzatziki, tossed with vinaigrette.
• Spiced salmon rolled in spinach, fried in a crisp wrapper and served with a sweet hot chili sauce.
• Asian salad with grilled chicken, romaine, snow peas, carrots, bean sprouts, green onions, cilantro, almonds and sesame seeds with a SkinnyLicious sesame-soy dressing.
The Corner Bakery website lists 100 combo options that are under 600 calories. Many individual dishes also fit that description.
Better-for-you best seller: A combo with half of a BBLT — with bacon, more bacon, lettuce, tomato and cracked pepper balsamic mayo — and an arugula salad.
Other top-selling low-calorie combos include:
• Half a chicken pomodori panini, with roasted chicken, basil, spinach, oven-roasted tomatoes and provolone with pesto mayo, and roasted tomato basil soup.
• The avocado and spinach power panini thin, with scrambled eggs, Parmesan and cheddar cheese, avocado and spinach on thinly sliced whole grain harvest toast.
• Half an uptown turkey sandwich, with smoked turkey, applewood-smoked bacon, sliced avocado, lettuce, tomato and mayo on harvest bread, and a Caesar salad.
• Asian wonton salad with spicy Thai coconut soup.
Denny’s launched its Fit Fare menu last year, which features items that are lower in calories and fat or high in certain nutrients. Menu items designated “lean,” for example, have 15 or fewer grams of fat per serving; “light” items have fewer than 550 calories. “Protein” items are also highlighted, containing more than 20 grams per serving; and “fiber” items have more than eight grams of fiber.
Better-for-you best seller: The Fit Slam, which is a lighter and higher-in-protein version of the chain’s classic Grand Slam. This version includes egg whites scrambled with fresh spinach and grape tomatoes, two turkey bacon strips, an English muffin and a side of seasonal fruit.
The Fit Slam menu also includes:
• The new Fit Fare Veggie Skillet, which includes seasoned red-skinned potatoes, roasted peppers and onions, mushrooms and broccoli served on a hot skillet and topped with two egg whites scrambled with spinach and grape tomatoes. Served with a side of salsa, this item is “light” and also higher in protein.
• The banana pecan pancake includes two wheat pancakes topped with banana slices and served with two scrambled egg whites, two strips of turkey bacon and a side of warm syrup. This item carries the “lean” and “fiber” designations.
• Cranberry apple chicken salad with grilled seasoned chicken breast, glazed pecans, apple slices and dried cranberries on a bed of spring lettuce mix with balsamic vinaigrette. This dish is labeled “lean” and “light.”
Einstein Bros. Bagels
Einstein Noah Restaurant Group earlier this year expanded Einstein Bros. Bagels’ reduced-calorie offerings under a new Smart Choices menu with 14 items under 350 calories. Many options feature the chain’s popular Bagel Thins, a thinner, lighter version of the traditional bagel.
Better-for-you best seller: Bagel Thin egg white sandwich with asparagus, mushroom and Swiss cheese.
Other options on the Smart Choices menu include:
• Cheesy turkey Bagel Thin melt.
• Turkey chili soup.
• Ultimate blueberry smoothie.
• Chipotle chicken salad.