decoding restaurant menus
July 30, 2014

When Dining Out, How Do You Choose Healthier Menu Items?

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

How much are your meal choices influenced by the menu presentation? A great deal, according to a new study from Cornell University that found what you order may have less to do with what you want, and more to do with the menu itself.

The study, published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, examined 217 menus, along with the selections of over 300 diners. The findings revealed that two factors influence your dinner choices the most: what you see on the menu, and how you imagine it will taste.

Food items that attract attention with bold, highlighted or colored fonts, or that are set apart in text boxes, are more likely to be ordered than the less adorned items right next to them. Brian Wansink, author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, said, “In most cases, these are the least healthy items on the menu.”

[ Watch: The Slim By Design Menu ]

Menu names that are descriptive sell better because they lead you to believe they will taste better. For example, in one part of the study the researchers changed the names of menu items to make them more descriptive: the seafood filet became Succulent Italian Seafood Filet and red beans and rice became Cajun Red Beans and Rice. They found that customers rated these items as tastier, and sales increased 28 percent, even though the only thing that changed was the item's name, not the recipe. They also found that diners were willing to pay an average of 12 percent more for a descriptive menu item than for a non-descriptive one.

Wansink and his colleague Katie Love say that the key to healthier restaurant eating might be simple. “Just ask your server,” says Wansink, “Ask ‘What are your two or three lighter entrées that get the most compliments?’ or ‘What’s the best thing on the menu if a person wants a light dinner?'”

The research team suggests that restaurants use these two factors as well to catch the attention of diners and guide them to buying healthier high margin items.

Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life by leading behavioral economist, food psychologist, and bestselling author Brian Wansink