Using behaviour-change strategies in catering outlets

by Linda Hindle is the Deputy Chief AHP Officer, England.

The eating-out-of-home food sector, which includes restaurants, takeaways and fast-food outlets, accounts for a large amount of the food we eat. More than one-quarter of adults and one-fifth of children eat food from outside at least once a week. So, how can we support food outlets to encourage healthier eating? One approach is to use behavioural insights to nudge consumers towards healthier choices. Behavioural insights seek to implement low intensity, elegant ideas which can deliver large benefits. The EAST framework is a simple way to apply behavioural insights to a proposed intervention, such as improving catering. It involves making choices Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely.

Make it EASY

Behavioural science tells us that our intentions and behaviours do not always align and small details that make a task more effortful can decrease the probability of engaging in a behaviour. Small food businesses can help make healthier eating easier by:

  • Harnessing defaults – ensuring the healthiest option is the default option; this is a powerful tool for changing consumption behaviour. For example, offering a default side-salad instead of chips or a default portion size such as a small coffee rather than a large.
  • Decreasing the ‘hassle factor’ – we can be deterred from a behaviour by small barriers. Decreasing the hassle factor by, for example, placing healthier drinks at the front of the fridge and sugar-sweetened beverages at the back, may prompt people to select the healthier option.
  • Utilising substitution – it is easier for us to substitute a similar behaviour than to eliminate an entrenched one. For this reason, reformulation of products (such as cooking food in rapeseed oil or making fatter chips) allows customers to engage in similar behaviours (still buying chips) but for the behaviour to be healthier.


We have all bought things because they were made more attractive to us (e.g via discounts and money-off purachses). Small businesses can adopt this approach and make the healthier option attractive to customers by:

  • Product positioning – what comes before or after it influences how it is perceived and the likeliness of it being selected. Putting the healthy item first in a canteen can prompt customers to fill up their plates with healthier items. A similar principle applies to menus whereby items placed first on a menu are most likely to be selected.
  • Increasing salience of healthiest products – our attention is drawn to what seems relevant to us. Increasing salience could involve placing the healthiest items in prominent positions (as customers walk in or by the till) or in positions with displays (such as placing the healthiest soft drinks at eye level within fridges).
  • Offering incentives for healthier purchasing – this could include offering free healthier side dishes and require separate purchase of, or charge more for, unhealthy items. Or this could mean special deals on healthier menus and products with less salt, saturated fat, sugar and calories on menus, for example two for the price of one.

Make it SOCIAL

We care a lot about what others think and how they behave; other people’s behaviour is a cue for what’s acceptable and desirable. Small food businesses can use social norms messaging to encourage healthier choices. There is some evidence that social norms messaging can increase sales of healthier items. Placing signs near healthier items, for example, ‘every day over 50 of our customers buy a salad’ may encourage customers to select these items.

Make it TIMELY

We respond differently to prompts depending on when they occur. We are more motivated by immediate costs and benefits than those delivered later. Unfortunately, this means that eating unhealthy but tasty food appeals to people because the benefits of taste are up front, but the costs to health are long term. Although people are likely to make a healthier decision if asked to select food prior to entering small food businesses, this article has outlined some key moments to prompt customers; when given menus and at point of purchase to make the healthier choice.


1. *Adapted from PHE’s Health Matters by Elizabeth Castle and Tim Chadborn