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Menu Development | By Marc Halperin

Light Breaks
A few ideas for making breakfast a healthier meal with plenty of flair.
Lighter breakfast items can benefit quick-service restaurants.

As we consider the benefits and risks associated with altering quick-serve establishments’ basic breakfast formula to include lighter offerings, it helps to try and envision the consequences of changing too much, too fast.

The perils of an overaggressive breakfast overhaul are perhaps best illustrated by trying to envision Thomas, a 23-year-old student and rugby player at a leading Southeastern university, joining his teammates for a breakfast of cantaloupe, cranberry juice, and nonfat yogurt on the morning before a big game. You might also try wracking your brain to recall the last time you saw a pack of fraternity brothers hunched over a petite bowl of oatmeal and a side order of dry wheat toast at a local IHOP.

For a certain very valuable breed of quick-serve customer, breakfast is big. And heavy. It’s a three-egg Denver omelet atop a stack of buttermilk pancakes with a side of sausage links. Or it’s a hearty breakfast sandwich encompassing meat, cheese, and some sort of fried potato.

But for a growing number of so-called “Millenials”—that generation born between 1977 and 1994—the picture is decidedly different. A short while ago, a New York market research firm known as BuzzBack released a study outlining the factors Millenials consider important in the foods they select, and the results were: freshness (cited by 74 percent of survey respondents), ease and speed of preparation (71 percent), portability (61 percent), “provides extra energy” (58 percent), and “is a good source of vitamins” (52 percent).

Generally speaking, quick-serves have been active in responding to most of these demands. But the presence of energy and vitamins on the list suggests that nutrition and health are far more important to this up-and-coming generation than they ever were to Gen Xers or Baby Boomers.

So even while standard breakfast-sandwich offerings and other, meatier fare are destined to continue as staples of the modern fast-food menu, it’s worth asking ourselves what might be done to healthy up the menu without alienating traditional heavy users. My suggestions:

Healthy Variations on Proven Themes—Breakfast, unlike lunch or dinner, is all about routine and familiarity. Most of us are pressed for time in the morning, and the meal occasion, as a result, favors predictability and simplicity. Fortunately, there are innumerable options for making slight changes to familiar favorites that satisfy our core breakfast cravings in healthier ways. Removing the yolk from an egg-based breakfast sandwich can cut out most of the product’s cholesterol without meaningfully affecting its taste or texture. Placing the same sandwich on a whole-grain English muffin can substantially boost its fiber content. And replacing the traditional cheddar-cheese slice with a smaller but more flavorful piece of artisan cheese can further reduce the product’s calorie count while upping the quality and freshness. Also, chains might consider switching out traditional pork bacons in favor of a leaner turkey alternative.

Likewise, when it comes to traditional pancake, waffle, and French toast breakfasts, a little creativity can go a long way toward a healthier meal. Replacing a syrupy starch stack with a thinner, lighter, fruit-filled crepe carrier offers endless possibilities for different shapes, forms, and functions. How about an oatmeal and fruit-filled crepe drizzled with a brown sugar icing, all hand-rolled and capable of being eaten with one hand while driving? Or, consider a savory cheese crepe that would stand in for a typical breakfast sandwich—a lighter alternative to a quesadilla or breakfast burrito.

Customize To Open Guests’ Eyes—The online Encyclopedia of American Industries reports that more than 2.7 billion packages of breakfast cereal are sold in U.S. grocery stores each year, which makes cereal the best-selling supermarket product behind carbonated beverages and bread. And yet, despite this incredible popularity, no national quick-serve chain has introduced a proprietary cereal blend or otherwise tapped this vast market in any appreciable way. Certainly, there are those who will say breakfast cereal isn’t a meal Americans will travel for, but I would argue that a particularly crave-worthy cereal blend unique to a specific chain could indeed drive business to the drive-thru. I think it’s particularly if the coffee’s good, the product can be consumed neatly and safely in a moving car, and the price is right. For proof, witness the soaring fortunes of the Cereality breakfast-cereal chain, which began at Arizona State University about four years ago. Now, parent company Kahala-Cold Stone says it has thousands of eager franchisees lining up to take the concept national. Already, you can get your cereal to go at an express location at Newark International Airport and on two additional Pennsylvania college campuses.

Fresh Appeal—Other customizable possibilities abound: Fast-food chains haven’t yet gravitated en masse to breakfast smoothies or yogurt parfaits, for instance. And while low- or nonfat yogurts are obviously the lightest of options, the increasing popularity of creamier, more decadent Greek varieties suggests other avenues worth exploring. A yogurt, granola, and fresh-fruit cup could serve as a welcome morning alternative to standard quick-serve a.m. choices and prove popular with a broad cross-section of consumers, particularly those whose annual Denver omelet intake is sparing at best.

As culinary director and partner at San Francisco’s Center for Culinary Development, Marc Halperin assists food and beverage companies with new product development and consumer research.