A survey of 1,046 consumers conducted in September indicates that in the coming year many plan to eat out less. Such a sentiment is not surprising given the current state of the economy, and previous versions of the same survey have pointed to frugality as a key rationale for consumers who intend to eat out less. But the most recent survey adds an additional element into the mix. For the first time, consumers also are saying one of the reasons they will eat out less often is because they want to eat healthier, according to the North American Restaurant Consumer Sentiment Review, which was published by the business advisory firm AlixPartners.

Amidst already declining dining-out frequency, consumers who participated in the survey said they plan to dine out even less, especially at quick-service restaurants.

While the survey spotlights the importance of health and nutrition to consumers, the top three drivers in choosing where to eat remain food quality, price and value. The survey’s results should be viewed with an eye toward future trends and the realization health and nutrition have the potential to be a driver of foot traffic.

Creating an even greater challenge for foodservice operators is the fact consumers said they are planning on spending an average of 4.5 percent less per meal in the coming year than they did last year. While the survey found the availability of healthy menu items has an impact on restaurant choice – 51 percent of consumers rated healthy menu options as “important,” “very important” or “extremely important” in choosing where to eat out, consumers indicated they are unwilling to pay extra for “healthy” or “quality” menu options.

The foodservice sector has been under increasing pressure during the past few years related to the calorie counts or the amount of sodium in meals. Many consumer, government and public health groups, have decried the lack of nutritious choices on menus and the inability of consumers to determine how many calories or how much sodium is in a dish.

As a result, health has been at the forefront of many menu innovation efforts. Whether it is creating menu items that fit within a specific set of nutrition guidelines, or promoting the quality of the ingredients used to create a dish, operators have been working to create a healthy halo over some of their offerings.

Adding to the pressure is competition foodservice operators are facing from grocery and convenience stores as many retailers have expanded their foodservice offerings in tandem with consumers expressing a greater desire for speed-of-service and overall convenience. Of the consumers surveyed by AlixPartners, 27 percent reported going to grocery stores with the sole intent to buy a meal, and 24 percent reported the same for convenience stores.

Health and wellness will be a key trend in 2014, whether it is related to specific issues as sodium or sugar reduction, or to the favorable perceptions associated with the simple label trend. As the survey indicates, those operators that incorporate products with a healthy halo into their menu stand a greater chance of attracting more traffic into their outlets.