How to Choose Restaurant Menu Items

The Right Dishes for a New Restaurant Menu

Sushi plate
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Creating a restaurant menu can be overwhelming. What dishes should you offer and what should you skip? The ideal restaurant menu offers a balance of unique dishes and old favorites. It also has the right food cost to maintain profits (ummm…which is extremely important) and can be easily reproduced in the kitchen during a busy dinner rush.

Avoid Food Fads on Your Restaurant Menu

Just like fashion, there are trends and fads in restaurant menu items.

Remember micro-brew beers of the 1990s? They were everywhere. Low-carb menu items were all the rage during the Atkins Diet phase. Like those Co-Ed Naked t-shirts you wore in college and your favorite Kurt Cobain-esque flannel shirt, some food trends are really popular, but eventually fade away. While you want your restaurant menu to be exciting and trendy, you need to keep perennial favorites as well. Think of a burger and fries as the little black dress of your menu. It can be dressed up – perhaps a California burger with guacamole and pepper jack cheese - or served plain. Either way, it has staying power with most menus. Read more about writing a restaurant menu.

Restaurant Menu Items Need to Have Low Food Cost

In order to keep profits up and prices affordable for customers, each item on your restaurant menu should be priced to determine its food cost- the actual amount it costs you to make the dish.

Pricey ingredients (truffles, anyone?) will result in pricey menus. This doesn’t mean the food you order should be the cheapest available- quality is the most important aspect of creating menu items- but you need to balance high and low food costs to for a reasonable profit margin. Read more about how to price your menu.

Keep Menu Dishes Easy to Prepare

Unless you are an ultra fine dining establishment, the menu items coming out of your restaurant kitchen need to be moved quickly and efficiently through the line. Any menu items that have fussy presentations can potentially bog down the kitchen staff during a lunch or dinner rush. This doesn’t mean food needs to be thrown onto plates lunch-lady style. You can still offer great presentations, but keep it simple. Read more about the link between a restaurant menu and the restaurant kitchen.

Items on a Restaurant Menu Should be Versatile

Cross utilization of menu items keeps food spoilage down and allows you to use ingredients in more than one dish. For example, if you offer a homemade spinach and artichoke dip, try to offer other items that feature both spinach and artichokes. It is also a good idea to update your menu periodically and remove items that aren’t selling. Read more about how to reduce restaurant food spoilage.

Consider Buying Local Menu Ingredients 

The hottest food trend of the past decade is by far locally produced food. This can be vegetables and fruit, beef, poultry, seafood, even beer. People love local foods, preferably ones that have been grown or raised ethically and with sustainable farming methods.

 The local food trends show no signs of slowing down. It has been the number one trend for several years on the National Restaurant Association's annual Culinary Forecast and is a hallmark of the most fashionable restaurants in the country.  But local isn't just for fine dining. Food trucks and small independent restaurants are just as likely to serve grass fed beef and free range chicken on their menu as some posh New York City restaurant. Along better taste, less environmental footprint and helping boost your local economy, local foods are a great way to add perceived value to your restaurant menu and help your brand stand out from the competition. 

A restaurant menu is the heart and soul of your business. Careful thought should be given to what goes on it. Obviously, taste is the most important factor, but you must also consider cost, popularity, versatility and preparation.

 As you select menu items, make sure that the finished dish meets all of those requirements. And don't forget that no menu is set in stone. It should be revisited often to ensure that it stays up-to-date, both with food trends and prices.