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What Goes Through Your Mind When You Read a Menu?

My dog-walking circuit takes me past several restaurants. Often, in the late afternoon or early evening, I will see people scanning the menus posted on doors or windows. If the dog has stopped to sniff something, I watch the menu readers and wonder what will make them decide to go inside or walk away. It is tempting to go up to a couple and ask, “So, what do you think? Anything on the menu appeal to you?”

Since I am usually propelled down the street by the dog before I can ask these questions, I decided to ask my friends and relatives instead. I sent an e-mail to a random assortment of friends and neighbors asking them what goes through their minds when they scan a menu and decide on the dishes they will order. The people who responded tend to eat out two or three times a week because work obligations or social schedules make it more convenient to do so then eating at home. But the restaurants they go to are likely to be modest neighborhood places rather than expensive restaurants one goes to for a special occasion.

The answers were not likely to lift the spirits of chefs or restaurant owners as the respondents focused less on the unique qualities of the dishes than on whether the menu options met their criteria for portion size, healthy ingredients and absence of ingredients likely to cause indigestion or taste bud distress (like very hot spices). One respondent said that she always ordered one of the specials described by the waitperson but then admitted it was because she hated to put on her reading glasses in order to read the menu. Here is what they think when they pick up the menu:

  1. I always assume that the entrée will be too large so I look for an appetizer and a salad that looks interesting.
  2. Seasonal and local foods are apt to be fresher so I look for those dishes first.
  3. I never eat red meat so I look for fish or poultry dishes.
  4. Fried, creamy and spicy foods are on my “don’t order” list so I never even look at those items.
  5. The desserts appeal to me more than the main course. If I see a dessert I want to eat, then I will order a small appetizer and save my calories so I can eat dessert without guilt.
  6. I love to cook so I search for new dishes and try to reproduce them later on at home.
  7. I try to remember what I ate the day before so I don’t repeat myself.
  8. It depends on the type of restaurant. I won’t order steak in a seafood restaurant or pasta in steak house.
  9. It depends on who is paying. When I go out with my friends, we all order inexpensive items because we split the bill.
  10. If I haven’t eaten lunch, and if I have exercised that day, I allow myself to order something that may be high in calories. Otherwise I will eat fish and a salad without dressing.

The answers reflected in large measure the lifestyles of many of the respondents who took eating healthily and exercising frequently very seriously. Price was mentioned only once but that may be because the restaurants they tended to eat in were moderately priced. Those who said they avoided creamy, high-fat foods or ate appetizer-size portions referred to calories only indirectly. Several mentioned that what they ate out reflected in large measure what they tended to eat at home. In other words, restaurant eating was not an opportunity for culinary indulgence; rather it was simply a convenient way to eat without having to prepare the food oneself.

Watching as I do a Food Network program called Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, I suspect that my respondents are not at all typical in their thinking when they look at a menu. This program has the host traveling around the country tasting dining specialties and going into the kitchens to see how they are made. Often the program will focus on the biggest hamburger or the most decadent French toast or highest deli sandwich. The patrons are interviewed as they sink their teeth into food dripping with calories and in such large portions that it is hard for some to get their mouths around the fork or sandwich.

It would be interesting to get the two groups to switch places when it comes to reading menus and ordering. I suspect that my group would go into the diners, drive-ins or dives and those patrons go into the local restaurants where my friends eat and both would say: “There is nothing on the menu that I want.”

Menus in New York now include calories if the restaurant meets certain criteria for size or number of franchises. It was assumed that knowledge of the calorie content of the menu items would keep people from ordering fattening foods but, alas, that has not happened. It seems that some people feel that they want to get their money’s worth in calories when they eat out. Clearly these people are not saying to themselves, “If I eat this and gain more weight, then I may be paying more for my health insurance. Plus I just paid for an expensive weight loss program so why am I allowing myself to gain back my weight?”

Given the immense health and economic cost of obesity, is there any way that menus can direct customers to making healthy choices? Or as the results of my mini-survey suggest, is the first step to make the eater healthy and then the healthy menu choices will soon follow?