Misleading Menus: Making Mindful Decisions During Your Next Night Out


New York is one of the food capitals of the world, and I’m always amazed by all the options available when I’m on my lunch break or out with my family for dinner. While these meals can be delicious, they can also do some serious damage to your diet. We’ve talked in the past about how to identify the healthiest foods when eating out. But even when we make choices with the best intentions, menus can lead us astray. A new study out this week reveals some of the subtle cues that are influencing the dishes you decide on. Here are some helpful findings from that study along with some tips about how to make the right choices when you next walk into a restaurant.

Don’t Be Fooled by Flashy Fonts

Restaurants know that your attention is drawn to anything that stands out on a menu, be it boldface choices, highlighted chef specials, or using a box to set off certain items. Researchers have found that doing this makes us more likely to buy those items and one study even found we eat more if we order house specialties or the chef’s recommendations. Beware: these items may be some of the least healthy on the menu. Think about it, how often do you see salads as the centerpiece of the menu at your local diner? Restaurants use these techniques to shift your attention to the food they want you to buy.

Look Out for Descriptive Names

Adding a description below a dish can make it sound more appealing. The study found that including language about a dish in the menu increased sales of those dishes by 28%. That means one quarter more people bought a dish just because it was it was a Seared Black Pepper Crusted Ahi Tuna Steak instead of a Tuna Steak. Again, this might do disservice to some of your healthy options, since restaurants are likely to push the pricey steak over the house salad with language like this.

The Meaning of Healthy

While some restaurants might make healthy options easier to find by labeling them with a graphic of some kind, this can backfire when customers weigh options on the menu. A few studies have found that customers who see a dish labeled as healthy tend to think that dish is going to be less flavorful or indulgent, which then pushes them in the direction of a less healthy option they think will be more satisfying. Don’t make the assumption that healthy means flavorless.

What to Do Next Time You’re Out

Dining out doesn’t have to be a disaster. The key lesson here is mindfulness. Next time you’re in a restaurant, ask yourself why you’re thinking about getting a certain dish. Try to look through all the options available to see if there’s something you missed because of other distractions on the page. Or skip the menu all together and ask your server first what they’d recommend for someone looking for a lighter or healthier dinner. They can help point out dishes you might have missed that better match your tastes.