How Registered Dietitians Help Healthier Taste Good for Restaurants

March 15, 2016

Before becoming a registered dietitian (RD) for a major restaurant company, I had no idea how and by whom menus and products were developed for big brands. I guess I assumed that things worked much like an independent/local restaurant where the chef came up with recipes and somehow taught tens of thousands of cooks to recreate the same dish. While the head chef does play a major role in restaurant menu development, I’ve learned that it’s truly a cross-functional effort including culinarians, marketers, operators, food scientists, and oftentimes RDs.

I’d like to highlight two of my restaurant RDN colleagues who play significant roles at larger restaurant brands where they help bring more nutritious options to the menus.

Missy Nelson, RDN, is the senior dietitian for Taco Bell Corporation where she has a unique role as a product developer and leader of nutrition strategy. Within this role, Missy is responsible for creating balanced choices; nutrition, regulatory and scientific affairs; and nutrition communications and marketing, working closely with executive, legal, brand marketing and public relations teams on internal and external outreach.

Among Missy’s many contributions to healthy menu innovation, Missy has been responsible in part for:

  • Making Taco Bell the first quick service restaurant to offer American Vegetarian Association certified vegetarian menu items
  • Developing the Cantina Power Menu, which includes bowls and burritos that are under 500 calories with over 20 grams of lean protein
  • Reducing sodium across the menu on average by 15 percent since 2008
  • Launching a nutrition calculator for people to nutritionally customize their order
  • Standardizing Taco Bell’s ingredient statements to make it easier for people to understand what’s in their food
  • Simplifying Taco Bell’s ingredients by removing artificial colors and flavors, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, and unsustainable palm oil from its food and additives where possible
  • Facilitating Taco Bell move toward cage-free eggs by the end of 2016
  • Sharing Taco Bell’s “Food for All” journey to the right audiences, a program aimed at evolving the menu to deliver food that fits in a variety of lifestyles


Health and Fitness Specialist Maria Caranfa, RDN, ACSM, is the lead dietitian for Bloomin’ Brands Inc. She leads healthful menu development, nutrition regulatory affairs, nutrition analysis and nutrition communication for: Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar.

Maria has her hands in many projects and has contributed to these recent initiatives:

  • Directing national menu labeling across the organization
  • Initiating Bloomin’ Brand’s “Door to Plate” Gluten-Free program
  • Leading Bloomin’ Brand’s “Under 600 Calorie” menu development: 37 percent of total entrees are less than 600 calories in the casual dining brands
  • Spearheading Bloomin’ Brand’s healthful kid’s menu development including National Restaurant Association Kids’ LiveWell menu items
  • Bringing all of these programs to life through nutrition communications such as Carrabba’s Italian Grill’s Health and Nutrition Blog

Kudos to these remarkable RDs who are bringing healthy changes to restaurant menus around the world!