U.S. restaurant sales were hit hard by the recession, and not surprisingly, foodservice purveyors tried to maintain sales and attract customers by promoting value. However, noticeably absent from these "value menus" are healthy dishes with fresh vegetables, fruits and other nutritious ingredients.

According to the latest research fromMintel Foodservice, Chicago, 41 percent of restaurant-goers think eating healthfully at their favorite eateries is more expensive than not eating healthfully. Meanwhile, 14 percent look for the cheapest items on the menu when deciding what to order.

"This kind of price sensitivity gives rise to the concern that, as people cut spending, they are also likely to cut back on healthy food options," says Eric Giandelone, director of Mintel Foodservice. "The perception that healthy foods are also higher priced is a challenge for restaurant operators, who are under their own pressure to add healthier menu items, not only from consumers but also the government."

However, restaurant operators have a lot of freedom when developing healthier menu options. Healthy restaurant fare is expected to be fresher than average meals. Yet, less than half of restaurant patrons say that healthy meals rate higher than average meals in flavor, satiation, appearance and taste. Mintel respondents believe that 510 calories is the average calorie count a healthy meal should contain.

According to Eric Giandelone, the disconnect between healthy and hearty is the source of the problem.

"People believe they will be sacrificing flavor and the expectation of a satisfying meal. Since the idea of freshness is so closely tied with good health, restaurant operators can use fresh ingredients as a signal of high quality and high taste, while an emphasis on calories still allows for a focus on satiety and flavor."

When it comes to healthy dining, the majority of customers (81 percent) are looking for tools to make their healthy decisions easier. Forty-eight percent of Mintel's respondents choose dishes that utilize healthy ingredients, like lean protein and vegetables. Menu transparency is the next most widely used tool, with 41 percent of restaurant-goers using menu calorie counts to help with their selection. Meanwhile, 29 percent of people simply control portion size by ordering smaller portions or taking home part of their meal.