Adding diet menus to your restaurant

In today's society, it seems that just about everyone has some sort of dietary restrictions or preferences. Allergies are running rampant, and dieting is the norm rather than the exception. So what's a restaurateur to do?

The key is to be flexible. If a customer asks for a substitution, make every reasonable effort to accommodate the request.

To help customers navigate your menu, it's a good idea to add icons next to items. For instance, you could indicate which items are heart healthy, vegetarian, vegan or gluten free.

You don't have to create an entirely new menu in order to cater to patrons with dietary restrictions. Vegetable fries are a great substitute for regular fries for patrons who may be gluten and carb free. They also add great color to a plate, making the food more visually appetizing.

The flip side of counting carbs is that these individuals often seek protein-rich options. Consider offering a bunless burger, or a burger served in a "lettuce sandwich." Be creative.

Lactose intolerance is also pervasive these days. Fortunately, many lactose-free products are on the market. Alternatives to dairy products include almond, coconut or soy milk, soy-based cheese and non-dairy creamers.

Others may be more concerned with natural and organic foods. While the cost of these items may be higher, consumers often are willing to pay the difference.

Appetizers tend to be the least healthy menu items and the ones with the most calories. For calorie counters, offer fresh salsa and crudités, which is sure to please dieters. Keep in mind that not all salads are created equal. Many salads have more fat and calories than full-fledged entrees. You may want to indicate fat and calorie content next to your salad items. Be sure to offer dressing on the side, and offer options such as oil and vinegar.

If you serve breakfast, offer heart-friendly omelets made with egg substitute or egg whites. Oatmeal and low- or fat-free yogurt with fruit compotes are other healthy options.

Diabetics must watch their sugar intake, so be sure to have sugar substitute on the table for iced and hot beverages. Offer fruit smoothies, for example, in addition to milkshakes (this works for lactose-intolerant customers as well) using all natural fruit puree. For dessert, offer fresh fruit options so that these customers won't feel deprived.

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