Research shows that simple changes to the language on your menu can massively increase the likelihood of customers choosing plant-based dishes over those with meat. Not only is this interesting from a consumer psychology angle, but it has real ramifications in a world where meat-free meals are increasingly relevant. In this article, we share four so-simple ways you can tweak your menu to encourage customers to choose plant-based options.

Numerous studies conducted by the research non-profit organisation World Resources Institute (WRI) have shown that language on menus makes an enormous difference. As outlined in the WRI ‘Playbook For Guiding Diners Towards Plant-Rich Foods’ (well worth reading), decision-making around food is not driven by logic or rational thinking, but rather by habit and familiarity. These choices are affected by a myriad of micro-influences in the customer’s environment, often operating subconsciously. Examples of these include descriptive language used on menus, as well as the placement, size, pricing, position or packaging of a food or drink product.

How to encourage more plant-based food choices

1. Give them a nudge

One simple approach is to include a “nudge” towards vegetarian options at the top of the menu — a gentle reminder that ensures sustainability is a consideration for the customer. This can be likened to the card you might see in a hotel bathroom, explaining that the hotel policy is not to replace towels every day unless specifically requested to do so by the guest.

In 2019, a multi-stage experiment by the WRI, involving about 6,000 people in the US, concluded that ‘it is possible to encourage consumers to select plant-based dishes in a foodservice setting by simply changing how dishes are described on menus’. In one part of this study, diners were shown 10 different sustainability-themed messages on their menus before ordering, some of which had dramatic effects. 

One message read: “Each of us can make a positive difference for the planet. Swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years. Your small change can make a big difference.” Those who were shown this messaging selected a vegetarian dish 25% of the time — more than twice as often as those who were shown no message at all.

Another message (“90% of Americans are making the change to eat less meat. Join this growing movement and choose plant-based dishes that have less impact on the climate and are kinder to the planet”) influenced 22% of people to choose a plant-based option, again significantly higher than the control group.

Other messages, about the taste of the food and the need to protect the planet for future generations, also had a notable impact on the number of people choosing vegetarian meals. Overall, the study concluded that consumer decision-making can be significantly shaped by how menus are presented.

2. Change your descriptors

Another component of this strategy is to change the way you describe vegan and vegetarian meals. Following extensive research, the WRI provides the following list of terminology to use and to avoid on menus:

Avoid terms like:

  • Meat-free
  • Vegan
  • Vegetarian
  • 'Healthy restrictive' terms, such as ‘low-fat’

Instead, describe dishes using:

  • Provenance
  • Flavour
  • Look and feel

One example of this in practice comes from a study conducted in Sainsbury’s in the UK, which showed a staggering 76% increase in sales of the vegetarian option once its name was changed from "meat-free sausage and mash" to "Cumberland-spiced veggie sausage and mash".

Use language to evoke flavour and texture. Emphasising the enticing sensory elements of a dish — think evocative adjectives like crunchy, spicy, saucy, gooey — rather than its health or environmental benefits makes people substantially more likely to order a meat-free meal. 

3. Rethink placement

Place plant-based alternatives amongst the traditional meat-based option, rather than in their own dedicated section or box; for example, position your vegetarian burger beside your beef burger, rather than relegating it to the end of the list. 

In a study conducted at the London School of Economics, researchers showed 380 participants two different versions of a menu: one with the vegetarian dishes separated into their own section, and one where they were integrated into the rest of the menu. The results showed that only 6% chose a vegetarian option when these were separated from other dishes, versus 13% when they were integrated into the full list.

4. Make meat-free the ‘norm’

Research shows that making meat-free meals the default choice makes people many times more likely to order them. In July 2022, Burger King in Austria announced that from now on, almost their entire range will be served on a plant-based basis in Austria. This kicked off with an experiment in a restaurant in Vienna’s Margaretengürtel, where plant-based products became the default. Customers ordering a burger were asked whether they wanted it ‘Normal? Or with meat?’, flipping the traditional narrative on its head. Those who ordered without explicitly requesting meat received a veggie burger. While Burger King has yet to confirm whether this will become standard practice on an international basis, it’s clear that the chain is ready to put its considerable weight behind plant-based fast food options.

Eager to read more? You’ll find more tips for encouraging meat-free orders in your restaurant here.

If you’re interested in software that supports you on your sustainability journey, check out Foodprint, our fully automated carbon tracking solution specifically designed to meet the needs of the hospitality and foodservice industry.