Menus matter

There’s a perception among some that meat eaters will always pick a meat-centered meal, when at a restaurant or other eatery, but that’s not always the case. Two studies suggest that adding some messaging and increasing the number of veg options, can make a big change when it comes to encouraging a meat eater to order a vegetarian meal. Simple changes to messages on restaurants’ menus can double the frequency of customers choosing plant-based options instead of meat, research on the impact of food on the climate crisis has found.

Meat consumption remains stubbornly high in the US—the average American gobbled down 264 pounds of meat in 2020—and is rising quickly in countries such as China. However, many people are receptive to the idea of switching to vegetarian options in order to help the environment, the research found, with messaging on restaurant menus a potentially significant way of shifting behavior.

Researchers tested responses to 10 different sustainability-themed messages, when the participants were asked to choose between different options on a menu, such as a bean burrito or beef burrito. Several of the messages produced dramatic results. Diners who 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.” on their menus chose a vegetarian dish 25 percent of the time, more than double the rate of diners who were shown no message at all.

Another study looked at the impact of increasing the number of vegetarian options. Meat eaters can be ‘nudged’ into avoiding meat by seeing more vegetarian options on a menu, a study from Oxford University suggests. This study in a university cafeteria found sales of meat dishes fell significantly when vegetarian options outnumbered them. Researchers, who surveyed 2,201 people aged 18 to 98, found that respondents were twice as likely to pick a vegetarian dish when they made up three-quarters of the available choices. One of the authors of the study says,  ”Having more meat-free options helps to normalize them. It may help people realize a vegetarian option is an acceptable and normal choice.”

So whether it’s done through encouraging messages, or simply increasing the proportion of plant-based options, these studies show that meat-eaters are open to choosing vegetarian options, when presented with the right kind of menu.