Slim by Design: Serving Healthy Foods First in Buffet Lines Improves Overall Meal Selection

PLoS ONE 8(10): e77055. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0077055 (2013)

5 Pages Posted: 14 Sep 2013 Last revised: 10 Dec 2013

Date Written: September 11, 2013


Objective: Each day, tens of millions of restaurant goers, conference attendees, college students, military personnel, and school children serve themselves at buffets – many being all-you-can-eat buffets. Knowing how the food order at a buffet triggers what a person selects could be useful in guiding diners to make healthier selections.

Method: The breakfast food selections of 124 health conference attendees were tallied at two separate seven-item buffet lines (which included cheesy eggs, potatoes, bacon, cinnamon rolls, low-fat granola, low-fat yogurt, and fruit). The food order between the two lines was reversed (least healthy to most healthy, and vise-versa). Participants were randomly assigned to choose their meal from one line or the other, and researchers recorded what participants selected.

Results: With buffet foods, the first ones seen are the ones most selected. Over 75% of diners selected the first food they saw, and the first three foods a person encountered in the buffet comprised 66% of all the foods they took. Serving the less healthy foods first led diners to take 31% more total food items (p<0.001). Indeed, diners in this line more frequently chose less healthy foods in combinations, such as cheesy eggs and bacon (r = 0.47; p<0.001) or cheesy eggs and fried potatoes (r =0.37; p<0.001). This co-selection of healthier foods was less common. Conclusions: Three words summarize these results: First foods most. What ends up on a buffet diner’s plate is dramatically determined by the presentation order of food. Rearranging food order from healthiest to least healthy can nudge unknowing or even resistant diners toward a healthier meal, helping make them slim by design. Health-conscious diners, can proactively start at the healthier end of the line, and this same basic principle of “first foods most” may be relevant in other contexts – such as when serving or passing food at family dinners.

Keywords: consumer behavior, choice architecture, behavioral economics, food choice, environmental cues, all-you-can-eat, eating scripts, trigger foods, conference, buffet

JEL Classification: C93, D03, D12, I10

Suggested Citation

Wansink, Brian and Hanks, Andrew, Slim by Design: Serving Healthy Foods First in Buffet Lines Improves Overall Meal Selection (September 11, 2013). PLoS ONE 8(10): e77055. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0077055 (2013), Available at SSRN: or

Brian Wansink

Retired ( email )

607-319-0123 (Phone)

Andrew Hanks (Contact Author)

The Ohio State University ( email )

130A Campbell Hall
1787 Neil Ave.
Columbus, OH OH 43210
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics