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Can descriptive menu items make you thinner?

Looking for two easy ways to decode restaurant menus? Or maybe you'd like to be able to afford eating at a restaurant where you don't have to look up to see the menu. You could look down, for example. If you’ve ever ordered the wrong food at a restaurant, don’t blame yourself; blame the menu. What you order may have less to do with what you want and more to do with a menu’s layout and descriptions, says a new study, "Slim by design: Menu strategies for promoting high-margin, healthy foods," appearing in the September 2014 issue of the International Journal of Hospitality Management, pages 137–143. Authors of the study are Wansink, Brian, and Katie Love. (2014)

Can descriptive menu items make you thinner?
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

After analyzing 217 menus and the selections of over 300 diners, the Cornell University Food & Brand Lab study showed that when it comes to what you order for dinner, two things matter most: What you see on the menu and how you imagine it will taste.

First, any food item that attracts attention (with bold, hightlighted or colored font or set apart in a text box) makes us more likely to order that food item rather than the item listed next to it. “In most cases, these are the least healthy items on the menu,” said lead author, Brian Wansink, author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life.

Menu names with descriptive items sell better and lead you to believe that they taste better

The researchers cite a study where they changed the names of restaurant 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. So describing the sensation of the taste or the ethnic origin of a food helps to sell it. For example, the word 'succulent' may bring up in your mind the image of a mouth-watering juicy and tender serving of seafood not dry or tough to chew, but prepared to perfection, just the way you want to taste it.

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

The best solution to healthier restaurant dining may be an easy one. “Just ask your server,” says Wansink, according to the July 29, 2014 news release, Menu secrets that can make you slim by design. “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?'”

Description of a menu item helps to sell the menu item. The idea is to hold the attention of anyone looking at the menu.

Importantly, Wansink and co-author Katie Love point out that restaurants can also use these two tactics – catching attention and priming imagination to guide diners to buy healthier high margin items

It's one way menu design could help make diners slim by design. See the menu below for some examples. You also may wish to check out the abstracts of studies such as, "The effects of health value on healthful food selection intention at restaurants: Considering the role of attitudes toward taste and healthfulness of healthful foods," "Slim by design: Redirecting the accidental drivers of mindless overeating," and "Effects of calorie information disclosure on consumers’ food choices at restaurants."

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