Sometimes consumers say one thing and do another. For years, market research has documented consumers’ demands for healthier food at the grocery store and restaurants alike. This can only be translated as a sincere desire to consume better-for-you foods. But, when faced with a bacon double-cheeseburger and fries, intentions can fly out the window.

Technomic’s consumer research aims to get beyond intentions to actual behaviors and attitudes. What consistently is found is that consumers do indeed want to eat better—sometimes. Other times, they want to treat themselves, or indulge in a craving, or not care one way or the other.

Many factors play an integral role in dining decisions. But, there are different needs for different occasions: family meals, grabbing something on-the-go, meeting with friends—the list goes on. Before getting into occasion differences, it’s important to examine some demographic trends regarding healthy dining, to put additional insights into perspective.

Talkin’ About Generations

Millennials are by far the most likely age group to consider a restaurant’s healthy menu offerings when deciding where to eat out. Three out of 10 consumers aged 20–35 (31%) indicate they often or very often choose restaurants based on the healthfulness of the menu. This aligns with prior research showing that, of all generations, Millennials are most likely to report that it is important to eat healthfully and be aware of nutrition. As Millennials utilize foodservice more often than older generations, they may be more likely to consider the healthfulness of menu offerings.

In comparison, just 21% of Gen Xers and 18% of Baby Boomers choose restaurants based on the healthfulness of the menu. Again, this aligns with data showing fewer Gen Xers and Boomers strongly agree that it is important to eat healthfully and pay attention to nutrition. Furthermore, Boomers eat out at restaurants less often than younger consumers, so they may decide to treat themselves when they dine out. Boomers also are probably more likely to associate any offering described as “healthy” with the often bland choices restaurants served in the past to appeal to health-conscious consumers.

Restaurants increasingly offer and identify healthy meal options on their menus, and some consumers are taking notice. Two fifths of consumers (41%) report that the options offered on a menu impact their choice to eat healthier at restaurants. In addition, more than a quarter of consumers (28%) report that the availability of more all-natural and organic products at restaurants greatly impacts their decisions.

More than four out of 10 Millennials (43%) and Gen Xers (43%) say that the options listed on restaurant menus greatly impact their decision to eat healthier. In comparison, 38% of Boomers report being influenced by these options. This indicates that many consumers, particularly younger consumers, are more likely to order something healthy, if it is described as such on the menu.

Both Millennials and Gen Xers report that the availability of all-natural and organic products at restaurants has a strong impact on their choice to eat healthier (33 and 31%, respectively).

Filling Specific Needs

A variety of factors play a vital role in consumers’ foodservice purchases. The accompanying chart, “Specifically Speaking,” examines how frequently consumers visit foodservice for several different types of occasions, but keep in mind that these “needstates” overlap.

Nine out of 10 consumers (89%) report they primarily seek a quick, convenient meal away from home at least once a month—more than for any other occasion measured. Further, about half of consumers (49%) visit foodservice locations at least once a week primarily for a quick, convenient meal.

Cravings also play a major role in driving foodservice purchases. More than four out of five consumers (83%) say cravings are the main reason they purchase food away from home at least once a month. This is a much higher percentage than those who are seeking a healthy meal (64%).

Healthy Indicators

Though many consumers demand healthier foods, they do not want to compromise on taste. Most consumers prefer health claims and preparation styles that enhance, rather than detract from, the flavor of their meal.

“Fresh” most strongly resonates with consumers, with eight out of 10 consumers calling for restaurants to make meals healthier by offering fresh foods. Consumers gravitate to this term’s significant “health halo” over more specific nutritional claims, as “fresh” connotes health without suggesting consumers might sacrifice taste.

Consumers also call for restaurants to offer more healthy preparation styles. However, consumers prefer the richer flavor of grilled foods to steamed preparations. Healthy and flavorful preparations are no longer optional for operators—they are critical to appeal to a significant number of consumers.

Consumers also are interested in nutritional claims, especially among older consumers who may be more conscious of their fat or cholesterol intake. Younger consumers may be more likely to believe these claims negatively affect an item’s taste. Still, more than half of consumers call for low-calorie and low-fat menu options, suggesting an opportunity for suppliers to work with operators to menu more low-calorie and low-fat products.

Consumers are not only open to purchase, but they also are willing to pay more for better-for-you options at restaurants and other foodservice locations. Overall, only 24% of consumers are not willing to pay more for healthier menu items. Younger consumers are especially willing to pay more for better-for-you options. Only 18% aged 18–34 say they are not willing to pay more, compared to 27% of consumers aged 35 and older. And, younger consumers will pay significantly higher premiums for such items. About half (48%) of those aged 18–34 are open to paying 11% or more for healthier items, but only 31% of consumers 35+ are willing to pay the same.

Interestingly, when consumers are craving a food or beverage from a restaurant or other foodservice location, most are willing to pay more for that item in order to satisfy that craving. Only a fifth of consumers (22%) say they are unwilling to pay more. Age differences also arise for how much more consumers are willing to pay for an item they are craving. Of all age groups, consumers aged 55 and older are least willing to pay more for a craveable item. Looking at the opposite end of the spectrum, 45-54-year-olds are more willing than any other age group to pay 21% or more for an item they crave.

Balancing Act

Savvy menu and product developers recognize that different consumers have different desires when it comes to healthy foods, or craveable and indulgent treats. And, those consumers’ needs vary by occasion, mood, dining partners and more. Balancing the menu starts with examining customers’ behaviors and addressing their varied needstates.