(UPDATED COVERAGE, 10:24 a.m., Dec. 13) The U.S. restaurant industry is looking forward to a good year in 2013, and healthful fare should play a big role in it.

Restaurant industry sales are expected to exceed $660 billion in 2013, 3.8% higher than 2012, according to the annual Restaurant Industry Forecast from the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association.

If that happens, 2013 will be the fourth consecutive year of industry sales growth.

Americans are expected to eat more healthfully when they go out to eat in 2013, according to the study.

More than 70% of people polled say they are trying to eat better at restaurants now than they did two years ago, according to a survey by the association. About three-quarters of consumers say healthful menu options are an important factor when choosing a restaurant.

Consumers say restaurants are making changes to meet the demand for more healthful fare. About 86% of those polled said restaurants are offering a wider variety now than two years ago.

Joy Dubost, the National Restaurant Association’s director of nutrition and healthy living, said diners aren’t just saying they’ll eat more fruits and vegetables and other healthful foods — they’re doing it.

“There’s a definite trend to provide more healthy options, and consumers are looking for those options,” she said.

Produce-related restaurant trends to look for in 2013 include innovation in kids’ produce side dishes and greater use of heirloom produce, “superfoods” and exotic produce, Dubost said.

Tim York, president of Salinas, Calif.-based foodservice supplier Markon Cooperative Inc., is skeptical that consumers will follow through on promises to eat more healthfully.

But shippers can convince restaurant owners that fruits and vegetables are a cost-effective alternative to ever-higher meat costs, York said.

“It’s an opportunity for us (to show foodservice) what a great opportunity produce is from a margin standpoint.”

In addition, new ways of preparing fruits and vegetables are helping to get people who eat out excited about taste, York said.

Next year also is expected to be the 14th straight year in which restaurant industry employment outpaces overall U.S. employment, according to the forecast.

Restaurants are expected to employ 13.1 million people in 2013, making the industry the nation’s second-largest private-sector employer.

In 2012, restaurants added jobs at a rate of 3%, more than double the overall U.S. employment rate of 1.4%, according to the association. In 2013, restaurants expected to add jobs at a 2.4% clip, .9% higher than the expected overall rate.