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Chain restaurants help guests stick to New Year’s resolutions

Losing weight and getting in shape are always up there on the New Year’s resolution list. I’m no exception—on January 1, I vowed to go to the gym more often and put more veggies on my plate. Although it’s difficult to stick to resolutions when going out to restaurants is part of your job description, this January a number of chains kicked off the new year with menus that make it easier for me and other customers. For their efforts, we’re likely to reward them with our dollars as well as our gratitude.

For one thing, the FDA issued final national menu-labeling regulations in November, and although chains have a year to comply, many are already listing calorie counts. For another, some restaurants are realizing that health-conscious consumers want to do more than count calories, and this year, they are steering diners away from deprivation dieting and toward a healthier all-around eating style. It’s a direction that is flexible and tempting enough to make those resolutions last well into 2015. These four chains are going in that direction.

Applebee’s agreement with Weight Watcher’s ended last November, giving the casual-dining chain a chance to change its “diet” options. The change is significant: The launch of The Pub Diet (subtitled “Your Bar and Grill Favorites Made a Little Better for You”) boasts 600-calorie-or-less meals that are “packed with protein” and don’t look or sound like diet food. Menu descriptions hit several of today’s appealing buzzwords. Pepper-Crusted Sirloin & Whole Grains, for example, includes sautéed spinach, fire-roasted grape tomatoes and portobellos, while the Cedar-Grilled Lemon Chicken is accompanied by a Granny Smith apple relish, lemon olive oil vinaigrette and quinoa-cranberry-pecan rice blend. Portions look generous.

Takeaway: Applebee’s is promoting the attributes of these menu items (protein, fiber, flavor and cooking technique) rather than what they’re missing (calories and fat)—an on-trend and positive message.

El Pollo Loco started off the new year by expanding its “Under 500 Calories” menu with four new dishes. The new items feature the chain’s signature fire-grilled chicken breast—naturally lower in calories and fat than the dark meat—and whole-wheat tortillas. In addition to playing up whole grains, the Chicken & Shrimp Grilled Tostada features a double dose of protein, and the Grilled Chicken & Kale Salad is tossed with that ubiquitous though vitamin-rich leafy green. None of the items skimp on flavor or authenticity, with additions including cotija cheese, roasted pepitas and poblano salsa.

Takeaway: Freshness and authenticity are the selling points of these menu items; they add value to the eating experience instead of taking away from it with smaller portion sizes and fewer calories.

McAlister’s Deli offers more than 250 “Lite Choose Two” menu options, giving guests the freedom to create customized under-600-calorie meals by combining two half portions of any starter, salad, spud or sandwich. New for 2015 is a just-launched tomato bisque soup as well as a social media campaign that integrates the menu into a healthy lifestyle. Consumers are invited to share photos and videos of how they use the menu and stay active, with prizes for the winners.

Takeaway: Although the “Lite Choose Two” portions are on the small side, flexibility and menu variety are incentives to choose McAlister’s. Also on the plus side: the fast casual is encouraging physical activity along with smart eating as part of an overall healthy lifestyle.

Schlotzsky’s also has healthy “Pick 2” combinations, offered from 45 menu items that come in under 670 calories. These include the Apple, Pecan & Chicken Salad, Garden Vegetable Soup and BBQ Chicken Jalapeño Pizza. The chain says a team of dietitians evaluated the items to make sure they were both lower calorie and nutrient dense.

Takeaway: While slimming down tops the resolutions list, Schlotzsky’s discovered that a number of people also resolve to save money when January 1 rolls around. To please those guests, the chain introduced a “Pick 2” value option, featuring salads, soups, pizza, flatbreads and oven-baked sandwiches.

Less than one month into 2015, these four chain menus make resolutions easier to keep. Healthier choices like these should become permanent—as long as restaurants don’t put them in a special “diet” section on the menu.

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