« Effective behavioral strategies for children food choices »

Eating with our eyes: the first foods seen are more likely to be eaten

Selecting and eating healthful foods may seem like a natural thing to do, but many people seldom engage in healthful eating behaviors on a regular basis. Research performed by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs has uncovered factors which could influence the taking and consumption of healthful foods in any food environment. New research from these labs show that the order in which foods are presented to diners has a dramatic effect on the type of foods selected and consumed.

Location, Location, Location

When food is presented in a buffet or serving line style, foods which are presented first have an 11 per cent advantage over all other items. This research was based on the evaluation of foods selected by conference attendees at a breakfast buffet. Two buffet lines were set and contained a variety of healthful and less-healthful items such as: low-fat granola, low-fat yogurt, fruit, cinnamon rolls, bacon, cheesy eggs, fried potatoes and bacon. One line was set with the healthful items first while the other line was set with the less-healthful items first. Conference attendees were then randomly assigned to a buffet line from which they would choose their meal. Regardless of the line set-up, over 75 per cent of diners selected the first food they saw and the first three foods a person encountered comprised 68 per cent of all the foods they took. Interestingly, when less-healthful items were placed first in the line, attendees also took 31 per cent more total food.

School Lunch Line Applications

The application of these theories in schools yielded similar results. When rearranging the lunch-line to feature a “targeted entrée” or an entrée which was deemed more healthful on that menu day, students took and ate more of it. In one case, the bean burrito which was moved toward the front of the line in a high school setting sold out in the second lunch period for the first time since its addition to the menu (almost five years prior!). This was an increase in selection of over 40 per cent. One caveat to this rule tends to center on vegetable sides. When vegetable sides were placed as the first item on the school lunch-line, selection actually decreased slightly. This is hypothesized to be result of the order in which plates are created. A consumer typically determines an entrée before selecting sides; however, more research on this issue is required.

Self-Serving Increases Consumption

When designing food environments to increase the selection of particular foods, one must consider whether individuals will actually consume the foods selected.

The Cornell Food and Brand Lab has found that when a person self-serves, they will eat 92 per cent of what they put on their plate. This is important when considering how particular food items are presented. If the objective is to increase selection and consumption of foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, placing these items first is a simple way to accomplish both.

This research has applications in most food environments where consumers can self-select meals. Healthful food items should be placed first on the serving line to increase the likelihood of selection and eventual consumption.

  • Wansink, Brian, and David Just (2011), “Healthy Foods First: Students Take the First Lunchroom Food 11% More Often Than the Third,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Volume 43:4S1, S9.
  • Wansink, B., Hanks, A., (2013). “Slim by Design: Serving Healthy Foods First in Buffet Lines Improves Overall Meal Selection.” PLOS One, Volume 8:10.