The Psychology of a Restaurant Menu

How’s this for familiar: You walk into a restaurant intending to eat healthfully, but before you know it, you’ve ordered a burger with a side of fries. Don't blame yourself just yet — the problem may not be your willpower, but the menu layout. According to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, people make unhealthy food choices when they read menus with low-calorie sections.

The study found that when healthier fare is grouped together under general headers such as, “Under 550 calories” or “Low-fat meals,” diners outright ignore those choices in favor of bad-for-you dishes. “People generally want to make healthy choices, but because menus have so many options, it’s easier to dismiss an entire food category when it’s grouped together — especially the healthier section,” Jeffrey R. Parker, PhD, assistant professor of marketing at Georgia State University, tells Yahoo Shine.  

Here’s what happens when people read menus: Due to an overload of choices, the brain immediately makes general decisions in order to simplify (“I’m craving seafood,” “I don’t feel like pasta tonight”), thereby focusing on or dismissing certain sections of the menu. When diners see the low-calorie section, two things happen: They innately assume that healthy food isn’t tasty, and because they’re already in elimination mode, it’s easier to dismiss those items.

“Interestingly, we found that when low-cal items are scattered throughout the menu — or example, in the sandwich section — diners are more likely to order the healthier meals,” says Parker. “If they’re craving a sandwich, the fact that it’s a healthy sandwich simply becomes a perk.” What might sway you toward healthier meals, says Parker, is to read the menu slowly in order to give each item careful consideration. While you’re doing that, note these three menu tricks restaurants use to deplete your willpower and your wallet.  

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Think before you order a highlighted menu item: You may not be craving mac and cheese, but if it’s singled out in a box, it looks special because it's set apart from the rest of the dishes, says restaurant consultant and “menu engineer” Gregg Rapp. Ditto for items listed in a colored or fancy font. One study conducted by Cornell University even found that items described poetically seem more appealing and are ordered more frequently. For example, do you want to order  "New York Style Cheesecake with Godiva Chocolate Sauce" or just "Cheesecake”?

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If you’re on a budget, avoid the upper-right hand corner: According to William Poundstone, author of "Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It)," people’s eyes naturally gravitate toward the upper-right hand corner of whatever they’re reading. Therefore, restaurants often list their pricier items there. An extra perk for the restaurant's bottom line? Seeing a really expensive dish right off the bat will make the rest of the menu seem reasonably priced in comparison, according to a story published in the New York Times. 

Be wary of a menu without prices: It's always a mood-killer when the check arrives at the end of the evening, but knowing what you're buying beforehand will soften the blow — and most likely result in a smaller dinner bill. A different Cornell University study found that diners spend significantly more on their meals when items were listed without the price.

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