An Open Letter to Casual Dining Restaurants

Dear Restaurants,

Hi. I’m a mom. You may know me as your Target Demographic, the decision-maker for my family’s mealtimes. I am also a consumer in my own right. I like to eat. You want me to spending my dining dollars at your establishment instead of one of the 10 other restaurants within a half-mile radius of your location. So I’m going to level with you.

I do care about the cost, quality, and value of the food you serve. If it doesn’t taste good, my family isn’t going to eat it. But I am concerned about health, too. I don’t serve a vegetable at every meal because we just don’t eat enough of them – that’s true. But I do approve of how many of you are beginning to offer a variety of fruits as side items on your kids menu. I am far more likely to choose your restaurant over someone else’s if you offer a healthy side item that my son will eat – like baby carrots, apple slices, mandarin oranges, or seedless grapes. Applesauce will do in a pinch, but I don’t like the added sugar it provides.

The real crux of the issue, though, is portion size. When I’m looking for value in a casual dining restaurant, I don’t want you to cram as much food as you can onto a plate so you can charge me whatever price point you’ve established is acceptable for your market. I love mashed potatoes, so if you throw three cups of mashed potatoes on my plate along with my chicken breast, I’m going to eat three cups of mashed potatoes. But a serving size is not three cups. What I really want is for you to provide a more reasonable one-cup serving of mashed potatoes on a smaller plate. I don’t need a 10-inch plate full of food to make me feel I’m getting my money’s worth. And yes, I would like you to charge me less for less food. You may be surprised how many families would dine with you more if a single meal out fit better into their budgets.

You could still offer your ginormous portions at existing prices, but many of us would appreciate a “right size” menu that included deck-of-card-sized meat and 1-cup servings of side items. You can even include french fries on this menu – just not the same half pound of fried potatoes you normally add to the plate. Because you see, your existing “healthier choices” menu just isn’t working for me. I don’t want large portions of foods that are “better for me.” I don’t like broccoli or broiled fish. I want to order the tasty foods I already love on a plate that weighs in at under 1,000 calories – side items and all. Oh, and a side salad should be a viable side dish option – not only something available for an additional charge.

So let’s talk about kids menus. Some of you have gotten it right, and I know this because I’ve seen the calorie counts on your menus. (IHOP, I’m looking at you. Kudos!) Portion size is important for adults, but it’s even more important for kids. We need to teach our kids about portion control at a young age in order to help them avoid becoming just another obesity statistic. My six year old does not need a three-cup serving of fat-laden macaroni and cheese… with a side of fries. Some of the restaurants that do put calorie counts on their kids menus are offering young children meals that contain 600-800 calories! That’s more than half of what young children need in a day!

Okay, so my child is not going to choose grilled chicken and broccoli over chicken nuggets. But offer a McDonald’s-size serving of chicken nuggets that doesn’t top 300 calories. (Yes, fast food restaurants offer healthier portion sizes than most casual dining restaurants, and many of them offer healthy sides and drinks now!) Have milk and 100% juice as the default kids drinks, with soda and other sugary beverages available by request. Better yet, start offering fruit and veggie juice blends like V8 V-Fusion, even if you had to make them a 99-cent upcharge. My family would love that. When placing pictures of the food on the kids menu, depict all of the entree choices with your fruit and vegetable side dish offerings…fries available only on request. For us, TJ gets a fruit side dish with his meal, and one of us will share our fries with him, so he’s not going completely without the “good stuff.”

Another thing that would help? Let adults order off the kids menu, like Cracker Barrel does. And don’t charge them more for the “privilege” of ordering less food, except maybe to charge separately for an adult-size drink in lieu of the child-size beverage. (I see no justification for making adults pay $2 more for the same amount of food a child receives unless a larger, refillable beverage is included in that price.) This is a viable alternative to adding a separate “portion control” menu. I can order a Happy Meal at McDonald’s – toy and all – and eat for less than $5 and 500 calories. Why can’t I go to Friendly’s and do the same thing? (Although for slightly more than $5, of course.) If I want the smaller portion, I don’t understand why I’m prevented from ordering it simply because I’m over the age of 12.

Last point… Sneak more nutrition into my meal. Do like Red Robin does, and offer the option of a whole wheat bun for your burgers. I need fiber and whole grain… and it makes my cheeseburger a little less horrible of a choice. Uno’s lets you choose a five-grain crust for their thin crust pizzas. (I do wish this was an option for the 700+ calorie make-your-own-pizzas on the kids menu.) Take a page out of Prego’s Veggie Smart book and sneak things like squash and sweet potatoes into your spaghetti sauce. If you can help me eat healthier without sacrificing taste, I will spend my money at your establishment.

We’ve had a lot of great restaurants close their doors in my area recently because they just weren’t getting enough customers in the door. I’m giving you this advice for free, advice for how to win the loyalty of families like mine. (If you would like to hire me as a consultant, I do that sort of thing, too. Contact me at twilightsun at gmail dot com to discuss terms.) Dining out is my family’s vice. We’ve even joked that we should be professional diners, hired to break in the waitstaff at new restaurants. We may make special orders, but we’re pretty easygoing and understanding… and we’re good tippers. 🙂 You want people like us in your restaurants. Now give us a reason to choose you over the place across the street.


Christina Gleason

Christina Gleason (976 Posts)

That’s me: Christina Gleason. I’m a professional copywriter, editor, and blogger. My company is called Phenomenal Content. (Hire me!) I'm a multiply disabled autistic woman doing my best in this world built for abled people. I’m a geek for grammar, fantasy, and select types of gaming, including Twitch Sings and Plants vs Zombies 2. I hate vegetables. I have an intense phone phobia, so I’ll happily conduct business over email or IM instead.


  1. Totally agree Christina, I think restaurants would be surprised by how many kids will make healthier choices if given the option. My daughter always picks oranges at Red Robin and apple slices for her side at McDonalds. She also really likes broccoli, when it’s offerred. Good point about the adult portions too, my husband usually begins by cutting his hamburger or sandwich in half and eats about half the side too when we’re out. He’s very disciplined in that, but others – me incuded – were raised in the clean plate and seem to eat until it’s all gone even when we’re full. A smaller portion for less would be great!
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  2. Wham bam! Perfectly said!
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  3. I was surprised when I read this. I’m a 22 year old male, yet I found myself going “YEAH! WTF RESTAURANTS!” every paragraph. -_-

    Oh how many times I’ve wanted to order off the kid’s menu because I wasn’t very hungry. “What’s that? I can’t have the mini-cordogs with a side of green beans? Why not? Because I’m too old? Is my money too old? GIVE ME THE CORNDOGS, DAMN YOU!”

    But yeah, the portion size is really my biggest problem with eating out. I either pay a lot and get a lot (often too much), or pay a lot and get nothing, which doesn’t make any sense. I’m pretty sure the price and amount of materials consumed should scale in tandem.

    Anywho, solid rant/advice, Christina, though you did forget to mention one key aspect of eating at restaurants… MOOORE CRAYONS!!! 8D
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  4. “Let adults order off the kids menu.” Hear! Hear! I hate it when I order a kiddie meal and I’m told it’s only for kids. It’s crazy! Hope restaurants get smarter. Kudos on writing this letter.
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