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The nightmares of healthy-menu planners

Growing consumer obsession with dieting has many menu planners counting calories in their sleep. The dreams turn to nightmares as more restaurants add healthy options, making differentiation an overwhelming task. And, somehow, one that doesn't keep Kurt Hankins awake at night.

Hankins, Applebee's SVP of menu development, says he gets plenty of rest, though most would question how. Casual dining, after all, has become synonymous with indulgences like blossoming, deep-fried onions, and bacon-topped everything.

Yet, at least as far as Applebee's goes, Hankins has done a lot to change that.

He was instrumental in the chain's partnering with Weight Watchers, whose seal of approval on Hankins' health-conscious creations has been the green light for droves of dieting Americans to choose the chain.

Hankins had watched the popularity of Weight Waters' branded items in grocery stores, and predicted that there would be a similar demand for nutritionally pre-calculated meals in a restaurant setting. The challenge, of course, was to make healthy into tasty.

Staying within the Weight Watchers point-system limitations, Hankins developed a line of 10 new dishes like Mesquite Chicken Salad, Teriyaki Shrimp Skewers, and Berry Lemon Cheesecake. Those might not sound especially healthy, but Hankins' secret is smaller portions of proteins and keeping fat content in check with reduced-fat cheeses, steamed vegetables, and fruit. The smaller portions of protein keep costs down.

Applebee's healthy menu now accounts for 10% of all sales. And Hankins? "It's a full-court press with Weight Watchers," Hankins says. He's now experimenting with ethnics like Latino and Caribbean cuisine, but he still gets plenty of sleep.

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