When consumers eat out and what to eat "healthier," they are more apt to cut down on an order—by skipping dessert, having water instead of a beverage or getting a smaller portion—than choose a healthier alternative, concludes a study from the NPD Group research organization. The study, Healthy at Foodservice—Consumer Expectations Put in Perspective, did find that foodservice consumers do look to healthier choices in proteins and preparation method when eating away from home.

NPD reports that while more than half of adults say they eat healthful meals always or most of the time at home, only a quarter say they eat healthy foods when they go out to eat. The variance in part reflects differences in consumers’ priorities, which change depending on where they eat.  According to the NPD study, of those consumers not ordering healthy when they dine out, 37 percent said that when they go out to eat, “I want to eat what I want to eat” and 23 percent said that “I want to indulge when I go out to eat.”

“The bottom line is that even with an increasing number of restaurants offering healthier menu items or posting calories and other nutritional information, at the end of the day, consumers see dining out as a treat, an indulgence,” says Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst. “Operators and foodservice operators are in a challenging position trying to balance meeting their customers’ wants and needs, like any successful marketer should do, and meeting societal responsibilities. A first step is understanding healthy from the consumers’ perspective.”