How To Hack Menus For Better Health

What's the first thing your eyes go to when you open up the menu at a restaurant? Do you see the list of "chef's specials" highlighted in the corner in flashy fonts? Do you go through the prices and try to find something not too expensive and not too cheap? Do the color photos of their most popular dishes make your mouth water? Do you read the fine print about each and every ingredient? While you may think you're just reading the menu, it's much more complex than that.

Creating a menu isn't just haphazardly listing items and leaving the choice up to the consumer. The filling in of a blank menu is as carefully considered as an artist standing in front of a mound of clay. It's a place for coercion, for gentle nudges, for psychological warfare. It's where restaurant owners can tweak the dials to get customers to order in a certain way.

And now, their secrets are finally out.

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Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing at Cornell, has released a new study in the International Journal of Hospitality Management that looks at how a menu "works." He did it by asking a simple question: If one were to look at a menu as if each listing was its own separate advertisement, are there certain methods that work better than others to sell the product?

Wansink found that any item printed in a style separate from the rest of the page is more likely to get ordered, especially when compared to those placed nearby in ordinary font. He also found that menus which list prices using full integers ("12") sell more than menus that list prices with the decimal point ("$12.00"). Another result was proof, once and for all, that descriptive names sell a lot better than bland ones:

[T]he seafood filet became Succulent Italian Seafood Filet and red beans and rice became Cajun Red Beans and Rice. Sales of these items went up by 28% and they were rated as tastier, even though the recipe was identical. Diners were also willing to pay an average of 12% more money for a menu item with a descriptive name.

Finally, somewhat obviously, items described as "healthy" or with some kind of symbol designating the food is actually good for the consumer do not sell. They are, in Wansick's words, "red lights." Which is a big problem, but one that tweaking menu psychology may actually help with.

See, the point of the study wasn't just to figure out what parts of the menu are toying with consumer minds. It was figuring out how these mind games could be used for good, specifically by getting restaurants to better promote their healthier fare.

Among the advice Wansink has for restaurants if they actually want to help their consumers eat healthier:

  • Place the healthiest items on the four corners of the menu, as that's where most people scan first;
  • Barring that, place them at the tops and bottoms of columns, since those are where attention tends to focus for large periods of time;
  • Use descriptions like "Chef's Recommendation" or "Traditional Favorite" next to the healthier options, as those simple additions increase sales of items by 28 percent;
  • And never, ever list the healthy food as "healthy."

Will any of these changes actually be implemented? That's up to the restaurants themselves. But if they're claiming that they want to actually help the public health, well, here's the blueprint to actually do it.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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