In Search of the Healthiest Dish on the Menu? Help Is on the Way.

chalkboard menu

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Menu board

©(c) Thinkstock Images

(c) Thinkstock Images

You're feeling hungry and hankering for some comfort food, so you slip into your local diner and scan the menu, looking for healthy options. You know they're in there, hidden among the burgers and fries, shakes and floats, waffles and three-egg omelets loaded with cheese. A spinach salad? A fresh fruit plate? A low-cal veggie soup, not too heavy on the sodium? The trick is to find them.

Health-aware food marketing experts want to help, basically by using the things restaurants do to manipulate diners into ordering high-profit menu items for the greater good -- or at least to boost our collective good health. In a study recently published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, Cornell University professor Brian Wansink (the man credited with the 100-calorie snack pack) and co-author Katie Love found that people eating in restaurants tend to order descriptively named menu items more frequently than those with bland names. Renaming "seafood fillet" something like "Succulent Italian Seafood Fillet," for example, boosted sales 28 percent.

What's more, they concluded, items called out on the menu in bold, highlighted or colored font, or set off in a box, were also more likely to be ordered. But, after analyzing hundreds of menus, they observed that, "in most cases," items given this special treatment "are the least healthy items on the menu," Wansink said. Wansink suggests asking your server directly for recommendations for healthy, tasty lighter fare. And he and Love would also like to see restaurants reconfigure their menus to highlight not just items with a high profit margin, but healthy high-profit-margin items.

They propose a three-step "menu engineering process" that "can help restaurants guide healthier decisions: (1) shift attention, (2) enhance taste expectations, (3) increase perception of value." In terms of specifics, they suggest:

  • Placing healthy, high-margin items in bold or colored boxes to call attention to them.
  • Using pictures, logos or icons to highlight healthy high-margin items, but not calling them "healthy," which many of us apparently associate with "bad taste."
  • Renaming the "Healthy" food section to make it more taste-evocative and appealing, perhaps using words like "Light" and "Fresh."
  • Listing healthy "House Favorites," and making sure to list the healthiest options first, where they may be seen.
  • Offering half-size portions of a few regular menu items at a reduced price, and using words like "trim," "moderate" and "light" to describe these options.
  • Using descriptive words ("tender," "crisp," "creamy," "succulent") for healthy options to make them sound tastier.
  • Positioning healthy items in the corners of menus, where our eyes naturally gravitate, as well as high up in menu sections.
  • Making salad the default side-dish option, with fries available as a substitution upon request. (True, "Would you like salad with that?" may not have quite the same familiar ring, but given the health benefits, we can probably get used to it.)

Amy Reiter also contributes to FN Dish.

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