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The Architecture of Healthy Eating: Nudging Nutritious Habits Through Menu Design

The Architecture of Healthy Eating: Nudging Nutritious Habits Through Menu Design


Health and wellness are more than just buzzwords or the latest trend. Rather, they’re a way of life for many people. And while staying in tip-top health usually comes down to being active, limiting stress and making nutritious food choices, even the slightest shift toward wellness is beneficial. Some customers coming through your doors might be interested in healthy options, but aren’t always aware of which items to pick. With that in mind, how can your foodservice operation help? One crucial way is by slightly tweaking your menu architecture to nudge people in the right direction. Let’s explore the top ways.

List calorie counts

Most customers are unaware of the overall calorie count of foods while eating out. Therefore, why not push them toward more healthy choices by adding calorie information to the menu? That knowledge might be just the ticket to swaying customers from fried egg rolls to tasty vegetable spring rolls. In fact, one study showed that after some establishments implemented calorie labels, healthy food sales skyrocketed.

With that said, encouraging wellness with menu structure isn’t always a choice. Your operation may need to fall into line based on specific legal requirements. For example, some health-leaning policies, like those brought about by the Affordable Care Act, require large chain restaurants to post calorie information next to menu items. Likewise, there are also local policies that have their own set of menu standards. For instance, San Francisco and New York City require every restaurant in the city to list calorie information for every item on the menu. If you’re not within either of these foodservice camps, voluntarily taking a page from federal and local playbooks is a smart choice for wellness.

Indicate healthy options

Listing calories isn’t the only way to get healthy appetites flowing. Adding healthy-choice indicators can also help. With something as simple as a green leaf or another visual icon placed next to good-for-you foods, you can sway customers' selections. As an example, Cornell University tested the influence of menu design by looking at 200 college students’ food choices. During the study, researchers added green stickers to items with more nutritional gusto. Consequently, sales of those items increased, once again demonstrating the power of subtle menu suggestions.

Prioritize health in menu item order

Ever wonder why grocery stores often place fresh produce and flowers at the entrance of the store? Or why there’s a sea of tempting foods on display at every aisle end cap? Marketing science is why — and it’s the master of subtle persuasion working tirelessly to influence customers’ purchasing behaviors. Just think of all the times you grabbed that impulse-buy bag of pretzels or tempting iced tea sitting conveniently by the register.

However, food placement isn’t the only example of marketing science at play. The placement of menu items also influences which beverages and foods people choose. For example, one study published in the Psychology & Marketing journal used McDonald’s automated soft-drink kiosks to conduct their research. During a 12-week study, researchers switched the menu placement of full-calorie Coca-Cola from the first option to the last and bumped the placement of Coke Zero to the first option. Remarkably, customers continued to select the first choice. Sales of the lower-calorie soda increased and the higher-calorie pick plummeted. With that in mind, one way your operation can subtly push healthier items is by putting the most nutritious offerings toward the top of the menu or each menu section.

Optimize menu descriptions

Ever been tempted by a delectable, tantalizing and mouth-watering dish? You’re in good company. The truth is, words are incredibly powerful, and the right menu phrasing can seriously boost food’s appeal factor. So where do you start?

According to one study, there are four main areas to hit on in your descriptions to encourage customers to opt for one choice over another. The first tip is to use sensory words describing food characteristics like texture, smell or taste. This language allows customers to envision what their eating experience will be like and affects the items they choose. To give you a better idea — what sounds more appetizing, a salmon filet or wild-caught, crispy, pan-seared salmon in a zesty, creme fraiche dill sauce? The second salmon wins by a landslide. But, sensory words aren’t the only descriptions used to pique interest. Evoking geographic regions (Southwestern salad, Washington apple pie), nostalgia (mom’s homemade bread) or brand names (Jack Daniels bbq ribs) have also been shown to increase customers’ interest in different dishes. Try upping the ante on your menu’s healthiest meal descriptions and watch sales soar.

Make healthy foods convenient

In addition to optimizing food descriptions, you should also change the convenience factor of food to draw customers toward healthier choices. One three-week study illustrated this point perfectly. When presented with identically priced menu items, where the only difference was that one option was available upon request, researchers found that most people ordered the dish as is. Customers didn’t want the added inconvenience of asking their server for the off-menu alternative. In response, establishments looking to nudge their customers toward healthier choices could offer the most nutritious meals as the default and the less healthy options upon request. One small way of putting this into practice is with additional condiments. For instance, instead of listing a bacon-wrapped cheeseburger on the menu, operations could offer a cheeseburger and simply have the bacon available upon request.

Watch your healthy food sales rise.

It’s no question, leaning toward healthy food options is a smart move for establishments and customers alike. And for you, understanding the ways menu architecture can gently nudge your diners in that direction is an important first step. Incorporate the concepts from this post into your next menu update, and watch as your nutritious food sales steadily rise. Looking for other ways to harness the power of your menu to increase food sales? Take a look at our blog post, How To Add Snacks to Your Menu To Increase Profits.

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