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Slim by Buffet Design

How Food Order in Buffet Lines Biases Food Selection

How Food Order in Buffet Lines Biases Food Selection

Diners at buffets generally take more of the food given at the beginning of the line than at the end of the line

To help diners make healthier choices, put healthier foods first in the buffet line

When dining at buffets, look at all of the options in the line first and plan what you will take beforehand in order to make the healthiest choices

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Every day millions of people stand in line at all-you-can-to-eat buffet lines waiting to satiate their palates with the delicious foods on the line.  Most of these people, however, are unaware that food order biases what ends up on their plates: the first food in line is taken the most and biases what else is taken.  In fact, this influence is so strong that in a recent study published in Public Library of Science One, Drs. Brian Wansink and Andrew Hanks found that two-thirds of an individual’s plate is filled with the first items they encounter.  Plus, when less healthy foods are served first, individuals take 31% more total food items.

Drs. Wansink and Hanks conducted their study at a conference where attendees were served a seven-item breakfast buffet. In the dining area, the food items were served on two separate tables just over 50 feet apart.  Unbeknownst to the attendees, foods were arranged in opposite order on the two lines. On one line, cheesy eggs, fried potatoes, bacon, cinnamon rolls, low-fat granola, low-fat yogurt, and fruit were served in that exact order. On the other line, the order was reversed such that fruit was served first, followed by low-fat yogurt, low-fat granola, etc. As they entered the dining area, the 124 attendees were randomly assigned to choose their breakfast from one of the two tables such that 59 served themselves from the fruit-first line and 65 served themselves from the cheesy-eggs first line. For logistical purposes, attendees were told they could only make one trip to the buffet line.

Results from this experiment showed that, the foods presented first biased which foods were selected by the attendees. Specifically, 86.4% of diners took fruit when it was offered first while 54.8% took fruit when it was offered last. In the same vein, 75.4% took cheesy eggs when presented first while 28.8% took cheesy eggs when they were offered last. Of a person’s plate, 65.7% was filled with at least one of the first three foods in the line. There was also an interesting correlation between the first food offered and subsequent selections.  In the cheesy eggs first line, selecting cheesy eggs was strongly correlated with taking potatoes and bacon.  Yet, when fruit was offered first there was no evidence that taking fruit was correlated with the selection of any other item.  This highlights the cultural association of eggs with bacon and/or potatoes, where fruit is not generally associated with any specific food.

Like other behavioral biases, the influence of food order can be leveraged to encourage selection and intake of healthier foods.  At your next dinner party or holiday event if you want your guests to make healthier choices, put the healthier foods first to help them be slim by design.

Summary by: Joanna Ladzinski