How to encourage sustainable choices through the language on your menu

Copyright Stefan Johnson

The Sustainable Restaurant Association shares tips on how restaurants can support more sustainable consumer choices by adjusting menu language

Building a sustainable menu

Restaurants have both the power and the responsibility to serve food that is nutritionally beneficial and environmentally friendly – and of course, tastes good, too. Designing menus with this in mind will not only provide nutritious food for customers, but will also make an impact when it comes to decarbonising the restaurant. Ensure that dishes celebrate legumes, whole grains and seasonal produce, and that the overall selection is weighted towards plant-based meals. Include smaller amounts of sustainably sourced meat, fish, dairy and eggs if desired – a study just published by Oxford University shows that low-meat diets have half the impact of high-meat diets when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and land use.

Language is powerful

Once you’ve designed your overall offering, it’s time to consider how language can play a role. Multiple studies (including the fantastic ‘Playbook For Guiding Diners Towards Plant-Rich Foods’, published by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in 2020) show that the language used on menus has a significant effect on consumer decision-making. This means that something as simple as how you present your food on your menu can play a huge role in encouraging sustainable choices, whilst making the dishes sound appealing.

How to leverage menu language to create positive change

Tell guests what matters

One 2019 study by the WRI 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’. As one component of this research, people were shown 10 different messages on their menus before ordering, some of which had dramatic effects on their decisions. 

One example 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 read this message selected a vegetarian dish 25% of the time — more than twice as often as those who were shown no sustainability-related copy.

Include a few lines of text at the top of your menu that ensure that sustainability is front-of-mind for the customer, using this opportunity to highlight the positive choices your kitchen is making in order to become more sustainable. Explain how you celebrate provenance through procurement, why you believe in creative vegetarian cooking, or how your menu is designed to reduce food waste or carbon emissions.

Make meat-free the ‘norm’

Research shows that making meat-free meals the default choice renders customers many times more likely to order them. Even if you have no intention of making your restaurant a completely meat-free zone, consider re-designing your menu to incorporate meat as an optional extra. Once you begin looking at your menu from a plants-first perspective, you’ll be surprised at how it shifts your own viewpoint as well as your customers’, which can lead to more creative plant-based recipe generation.

Describe it correctly

Being selective in how you describe plant-based meals makes a big difference. People don’t want to feel like they’re being deprived – and this sentiment can strong enough to sway guests, in their purchase decision. To prevent this phenomenon, avoid terms that suggest that something is missing: phrases like ‘meat-free’, ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’, as well as restrictive phrases, like ‘low-fat’.

Instead, encourage sustainable choices by describing dishes using words that emphasise flavour, texture and provenance. Adjectives that evoke sensory experiences are particularly effective: think word like ‘crunchy’, ‘rich’, ‘crisp’ or ‘creamy’. These appealing descriptors have a bigger impact than emphasising an individual dish’s benefits to the environment or to personal health.

Rethink placement of plant-based dishes

In a study at the London School of Economics, researchers showed 380 participants two different versions of a menu: one with the vegetarian options displayed in a separate, defined section, and one on which they were integrated amongst the other dishes. The results showed that only 6% chose a vegetarian option when they were listed separately from other dishes; this grew to 13% when they were included as part of the main listing. Considering that vegetarian orders more than doubled through this simple strategy, it’s well worth re-jigging that menu. Ensure that plant-based dishes are dispersed amongst meals that include meat, rather than having them under a separate heading – or relegated to the bottom like an afterthought.

Interested in learning more about ways to improve your restaurant’s sustainability? Read about our Food Made Good Standard, the only global sustainability accreditation designed specifically for the F&B sector.

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