Some companies use food as a competitive weapon. Take Google. Since opening its binary doors in 1999, it’s had the policy of offering free food for all the brainiacs who work there. When Google decided to make food free, they did it big. First, they installed more than 130 free mini-7-Eleven snack rooms they call “micro-kitchens” that they pride on being within 100 feet of every single employee. These have all the snacks, cold drinks, coffees, and fruits you can imagine, and they say the average Googler is never move than one hundred feet away from food. It’s all free, free, and free. Before work, during work, and after work (but don’t take it home).
Second, they have amazingly super cool cafeterias that serve almost anything you would imagine (sushi, BBQ, curry, burgers, chili, Jell-O, dessert bars) and some foods you wouldn’t imagine (kale and pumpkin pizza). Grab a tray and pile it high. Go back for seconds if you wish. Repeat until you feel like your stomach is about to explode. And again, it’s all free, all the time. Management isn’t shy about saying why:[i]
• It’s a recruiting and retention plus.
• It keeps high-salaried software engineers on site rather than driving around for an hour looking for restaurant.
• It encourages good “accidental conversations” with other Googlers.
• It reduces bad “accidental conversations”--those involving trade secrets--with pesky neighborhood competitors.
Unfortunately, there’s also something called the “Google fifteen.” It’s the fifteen pounds new Googlers--they’re called Nooglers--are rumored to gain shortly after joining the clan. This isn’t unique to Google. There’s also the M&M/Mars fifteen and the Nabisco fifteen that happen at other headquarters. In fact, this probably happens at any company where there’s lots of tasty, widely available free food.
Some of the first steps to make the Micro Kitchens more slim by design were pretty straightforward. Armed with our cafeteria research findings (described in the next chapter), a student whose dissertation committee I was on, Jessica Wisdom, took a job with Google in People Analytics and started nudging things around.[ii]We knew that the three things that determine what a person eats in a free food environment: 1) what’s most convenient, 2) what’s most attractive, and 3) what’s most normal.[iii]So here’s what was done:
• All the healthy snacks--like fruits, baked things, and granola-ly things--were put on the top shelves and the less healthy snacks--like Kit-Kats and Peanut M&Ms--were reduced to the smaller “Fun Size” and put on the “I-can barely-see-it-from-here” bottom row.
• All the bottled waters and calorie-free flavored waters were put at eye level in the coolers and soft drinks at the bottom--water intake increased by 47 percent and drink calories dropped by 7 percent.
• Fruit bowls are now about the first and last thing you see.
• Candy is in opaque bins and not out in plain sight--9 percent less candy was taken in just the first week. [iv]
The challenge with the Google Fifteen was to also figure out what to do about the massively tempting cafeterias. Our interviews with Googlers showed four complaints. Too much tasty variety led them to overeat, they wasted all sorts of food, they thought this was irresponsible and unsustainable, and they gained weight before they knew it – they had gained a Google Gut faster than they could say “The square root of 170 is 13.038.” Some small changes we recommended include:
• Putting the salad at the front of the line and the dessert at the back.
• Offering small plates to diners so they would take less--32 percent chose the smaller ones.[v]
• Downscaling the size of desserts to just three bites. They could still take a second or third helping, but not many do.[vi]
One approach would be to reduce the variety of food. Sure, if Google only offered beans and rice, people won’t overeat . . . there. They’ll go off-campus to overeat--bad news. A better solution would be to make it less easy--but not impossible--to pile a four-foot stack of food on a tray. This could first be done by breaking that massive cafeteria into four smaller cafes based on the style of food--Asian, Vegetarian, Italian, and an American Grill. You could still pile on a four-foot stack of food; but you’d have to go in and out of four different doors--probably too much of a hassle for most people most of the time. Analogous to the 100-calorie pack, each time they left one of the four cafes, they’d have to ask themselves if they really wanted to visit the next one. They couldn’t blame Google for restricting their choices, they’d just think,Uhh . . . this is enough.
As for the complaints about irresponsibility and unsustainability, Google had a stoplight rating system for certain foods. Green was healthy, red was less healthy, and yellow was in-between.[vii]Most people seemed to ignore it, so here’s what we suggested. Since every Googler has an ID card, they could have a debit account linked to it. For every Green-dotted food a Googler buys, it’s free. For every Yellow-dotted food they buy, their account gets charged 50 cents and Google matches that 50 cents and donates it to charity--such as the theoretical “Hungry Kids Without Wi-Fi Foundation.” For every red-dotted food they buy, this goes up to a matched $1. Googlers could still have anything they wanted, but they’d have to pause for a second to think about how badly they wanted it.
To tackle the “I gained weight before I knew it” problem, one of their software engineers, had an idea. Have you ever seen those iPhone or Android apps that let you upload a photo of yourself, and it shows you what you would look like if you were twenty or forty pounds skinnier or fatter? This would either motivate or scare the bejesus out of you. John figured there might be a way to have a “food scanner” set up that could scan someone’s tray and a camera and screen in front of them would take their photo and instantly display what they would look like in a year if they ate this much food every day for lunch. Way cool.
[i]From Ricky W. Griffin and Gregory Moorhead, Organisational Behaviour: Managing People and Organisations, South Western, 9thEdition, pp. 522-524.
[ii] An account of our work can be found here: Cliff Kuang (2012) “In the Cafeteria, Google Gets Healthy,” Fast Company, April 2012.
[iii]More at David R. Just and Brian Wansink (2009), “Better School Meals on a Budget: Using Behavioral Economics and Food Psychology to Improve Meal Selection,” Choices, 24:3, 1-6, and at Brian Wansink(2013), “Convenient, Attractive, and Normative: The CANApproach to Making Children Slim by Design, Childhood Obesity, 9:4 (August), 277-278.
[iv]The basic study was first shown in James E. Painter, Brian Wansink, and Julie B. Hieggelke (2002), “How Visibility and Convenience Influence Candy Consumption,” Appetite, 38:3 (June), 237-238. The 9% drop was reported by Jennifer Kurkoski and Jessica Wisdom to Cliff Kuang in Fast Company, April 2012.
[v] The general figure our research has discovered is closer to 22% for the average person, but this 32% increase was reported by Jennifer Kurkoski and Jessica Wisdom to Cliff Kuang in Fast Company, April 2012.
[vi]This is a great way to eat smaller snacks – eat only ¼ as much and distract yourselve for 15 minutes returning phone calls or straightening up: Ellen Van Kleef, Mitsuru Shimizu, and Brian Wansink (2013), “Just a Bite: Considerably Smaller Snack Portions Satisfy Delayed Hunger and Craving,” Food Quality and Preference, 27:1, 96-100.
[vii] A major drawback is that they are very subjective in where the line is drawn – is 1% milk a red light or a yellow light? When consumers think there is too much subjectivity, they either ignore it or react against it.
Here’s a ten-word description of how most people shop for groceries: They throw things in their cart and they check out. What’s the right amount of fruits and vegetables to put in a cart? We don’t really know because we don’t really care. Yet imagine what would happen if every time we put something in our cart we had to ask ourselves whether it was healthy or not. It’d be irritating--for sure--but after a while we’d think twice about what we casually threw in. Just stopping and thinking for a split second would be enough to snap us out of our mindlessly habitual zombie shopping trance.[i],[ii]
Back to the cart. When most of us shop, fruits and vegetables take up only 24 percent of our cart.[iii]But suppose your grocery store sectioned a cart in half by taping a piece of yellow duct tape across the middle interior of the cart. And suppose they put a sign in the front of the cart that recommended that you put all the fruits and vegetables in the front and all the other foods in the back. This dividing line in the cart doesn’t moralize or lecture. It just encourages shoppers to ask themselves whether the food in their hand goes in the front or back of the cart. There’s nothing to resist or rage against--they’re simply sorting their food.
We made a few dozen of these divided carts to test at supermarkets in Williamsburg, Virginia, and Toronto, Canada.[v]When people finished shopping and returned their souped-up, tricked-out carts, we gave them a gift card to a local coffee shop if they would answer some questions and give us their shopping receipt.
Shoppers with these divided carts spent twice as much on fruits and vegetables. They also spent more at the store--about 25 percent more. Not only did this fruit and vegetable divider make them think twice about what they bought, it also made them believe that buying more fruits and vegetables was normal. Who knows how much healthy stuff your neighbor buys? It must be about half,people think as they throw in some pears and three more red peppers.
Also check out this Huffington Post article on what what else you can do to be Slim by Design in supermarkets and restaurants.
[i] A number of years ago we gave secretaries dishes of chocolate kisses which we either placed on their desk or six feet from their desk. We found that those who had to walk only 6 feet, ate half as much candy (100 calories less; 4 each day instead of 9). Yet when we asked them if it’s because the 6-foot walk was too far or too much of a hassle, their answer surprised us. They said instead that the 6-foot distance gave them a chance to pause and ask themselves if they were really that hungry. Half the time they’d answer “no.” The key was that something – that distance – caused them to pause and interrupt their mindlessness: Brian Wansink, James E. Painter and Yeon-Kyung Lee (2006), “The Office Candy Dish: Proximity’s Influence on Estimated and Actual Candy Consumption,” International Journal of Obesity, 30:5 (May), 871-5.
[ii]Anything that stops and makes a person pause – even for a split second – might be enough to knock themselves out of their mindless trance and rethink.
[iii]The average grocery shopper buys only 24 percent fruits and vegetables. French, Simone, Melanie Wall, Nathan R. Mitchell, Scott T. Shimotsu, and Ericka Welsh (2009), “Annotated Receipts Capture Household Food Purchases From a Broad Range of Sources,” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 6, 37.
[iv]Brian Wansink, C.R. Payne, K.C. Herbst, D. Soman (2013), “Part Carts: Assortment Allocation Cues that Increase Fruit and Vegetable Purchases,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 45:4S, 42.
[v]Wansink, Brian, Dilip Soman, and Kenneth C. Herbst. "Larger partitions lead to larger sales: Divided grocery carts alter purchase norms and increase sales." Journal of Business Research 75 (2017): 202-209.
Are there fat tables in restaurants? This is a bit preliminary, but from our research so far it looks like people order healthier foods if they sat by a window or in a well-lit part of the restaurant, but they ate heavier food and ordered more of it if they sat at a dark table or booth. People sitting farthest from the front door ate the fewest salads and were 73 percent more likely to order dessert. People sitting within two tables of the bar drank an average of 3 more beers or mixed drinks (per table of four) than those sitting one table farther away. The closer a table was to a TV screen, the more fried food a person bought. People sitting at high top bar tables ordered more salads and fewer desserts.
Some of this makes sense. The darker it is, the more “invisible” you might feel, or the less easy it is to see how much you’re eating. Seeing the sunlight, people, or trees outside might make you more conscious about how you look, might make you think about walking, or might prime a green salad. Sitting next to the bar might make you think it’s more normal to order that second drink, and watching TV might distract you from thinking twice about what you order. If high top bar tables make it harder to slouch or spread out like you could in a booth, they might cause you to feel in control and to order the same way.
Or this could all just be random speculation. Now, the facts are what they are, but whythey happen is not always clear.
Does sitting in a dark, quiet booth in the back of the restaurant make you order more dessert? Not necessarily. It might be that heavy dessert-eaters naturally gravitate to those tables, or that a hostess takes them there out of habit. Regardless, we know that lots of extra calories coagulate where it’s dark and far from the door.
We have an expression in our Lab: “If you want to be skinny, do what skinny people do.” Avoiding the fat tables may be a baby step toward being slim by design. If you want to stack the deck in your favor, think twice about where you sit. Conversely, if a restaurant knows which “skinny tables” will sell more of those high-margin salads and that expensive white wine, they can fill those tables up first, leaving the back tables empty until the onion-ring lovers rise up and demand to be seated.[i]
There are easy changes you can make as soon as you arrive at your restaurant, but there are also easy changes restaurant can make to help you eat healthier. If enough people told the manager, “I’d eat here more often if it wasn’t so dark and loud and if there weren’t all of these annoying TVs,” eventually one of the restaurant corners will have more light and less TV.
[i] Of course, if a restaurant sells only chicken wings and onion rings, these same insights can be used to encourage people to overeat. Fortunately, most restaurants would rather make twice as much on a healthy food than make half as much selling anything else.
[ii]Still preliminary, Brian Wansink and Mitsuru Shimizu (2014) “Exploring on Seating Location Relates to Restaurant Ordering Patterns, Cornell working paper.
We’ve discovered more than 100 changes that lunchrooms can make to nudge students to eat better. For instance, if you show a kid three consecutive pans of vegetables--green beans, corn, and carrots--they’ll take 11 percent more of whatever vegetable is in the first pan. It doesn’t matter what it is. They’re hungry, and what’s first looks best. To help schools visualize how they could go through their lunchrooms and make a bunch of low-cost/no cost changes, I wrote an infographic editorial for the New York Times.[i] One teacher said she even printed this out for her students and had them color it in class. High school math class just isn’t what it used to be.
Shortly after the op-ed was published, a television producer wanted to film us doing a before-and-after Smarter Lunchroom Makeover of a middle school. Why a middle school? Apparently elementary students act too random in front of TV cameras (remember that picnic for squirrels?), and most high schoolers aren’t photogenic enough for television--too many strange clothes, weird hair colors, piercings, and uninterested looks. The TV people wanted us to find a middle school that would do a total lunchroom makeover for less than $50--and film it all MTV-style.[ii]
After finding the perfect middle school and watching students eat lunches for a week, we isolated ten changes we could easily make for less than $50 total that would probably help them eat better without even realizing it--things like changing the location of the fruit, giving fun names to healthy foods, moving the cookies behind the counter, putting the vegetables first, and so on. The food service director and producer were cool with the changes, so we got to work.[iii]Twenty-five kids were hand-picked to be secretly filmed by three hidden cameras. We hid cameras in a ceiling tile, a hat, and even in our fake water bottle. Everything was set--and then came the catch. We were asked, with the cameras rolling, to predict the sales for each food item.
After lunch was over, the smoke cleared, and the dishes washed, we were able to calculate just what had happened. The makeover was a nutritional victory--kids took a lot more salads, fruit sales doubled, white milk sales went up 38 percent, sugary drinks sales dropped by 17 percent, and they ran out of the healthy bean burritos--renamed Big Bad Bean Burritos--for the first time ever. These kids ate an average of 18 percent fewer calories, and they ate better than they typically did.[iv]
What didn’t work was putting the cookies behind the counter. We thought this would decrease sales by 30 percent, but it did nothing. Even worse, we predicted that moving vegetables to the front of the line would increase sales by 11 percent, but it instead dropped by 30 percent.[v]What happened?
A little bit of sleuthing showed that cookies were the cafeteria’s big “destination food.” They were five inches of hot, freshly baked gooey goodness--the main reason some kids ate school lunch. Wild horses couldn’t have pulled these kids away from the cookies without pulling them away from eating lunch there altogether.
The vegetables were a different story. As I mentioned, our lab studies showed that lunchgoers were 11 percent more likely to take whatever vegetable they saw first compared to whatever they saw third. Well, that’s true when three vegetables are in the middleof the serving line, but here we put them in the frontof the line. Nobody scoops up a plate of green beans and then looks for the entrée that goes with it. People pick out the entrée and thenthe vegetable. They didn’t want to take a veggie until they knew what they were having for a main course.
When the interview got to this point, the producer asked, “You’ve been doing eating research for twenty-five years. Sales didn’t increase by 11 percent, they dropped by 30. Why were you so far off?” I said, “Well, if we always knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research.” (He seemed amused enough by this answer to not report these missed predictions in his story.)
Still, nailing five out of seven predictions was pretty decent. Our prediction report card wasn’t straight As, but it was better than the report cards I got in high school. Most important, we were able to show in real-TV-time how only $38 and two hours of tweaking made a bigger difference than hefty expert commission reports.
Where should a school start? Start with the Smarter Lunchroom Movement Checklist below and choose three easy changes to get the ball rolling. When we sit down with the food service directors and managers, we specifically tell them what they’re doing exceptionally well. We then mention that these are some other ideas they can consider, but we ask them to pick no more than three. Some schools want to try everything, but while ambition may soar in the heat of the moment, when it comes to implementation, making more than three changes can seem so overwhelming that often nothing gets changed. Focus on three and save the rest for later.
The Smarter Lunchroom Starter List
When we do Smarter Lunchroom makeovers, it’s easy to find ten or more easy changes a lunchroom can make overnight or over a weekend for less than $50. Yet for most, even making a couple small changes can have a dramatic impact. Here are easy changes we’ve designed to get you started:
To Increase Fruit Sales . . .
Display fruit in two locations, one near the register
Display whole fruits in a nice bowl or basket
Employ signs and suggestive selling to draw attention to the fruit
To Increase Vegetable Sales . . .
Give them creative/descriptive names[vi]
Display the names on menu boards and at point-of-purchase
To increase White Milk Sales . . .
 Place white milk first in the cooler
 Place white milk in every cooler
 Make sure fat-free (skim) white milk accounts for at least 1/3 of all milk displayed
To Increase Healthy Entrée Sales . . .
 Make the healthy entrée the first or most prominent in the lunch line.
 Give the targeted entrée a creative or descriptive name
 Feature it on a menu board outside the cafeteria
To Increase the Number of Complete Healthy Meals Sold . . .
 Place key meal items at the snack window2
 Move chips and cookies behind the serving counter and offer them by request only
 Create a healthy-items-only “grab and go” convenience line[vii]
[i] A nice visual of lunch line redesign is titled just that: Brian Wansink, David R. Just and Joe McKendry (2010), “Lunch Line Redesign,” New York Times, October 22, p. A10 .
[ii]The specific show is the MTV-owned show called Channel One. It’s a hip, almost too-cool-for-school program that actually is for school. It shows a 10-minute news feature every morning during homeroom to 5 million kids in America – typically those in the big cities.
[iii]The video of this can be found at SmarterLunchrooms.org. Thanks to the Ithaca Food Service Director, Denise Agati for making this happen and sticking with the changes.
[iv]This is a great two-part (before/after) video with a lot of energy, good lessons, and some modest laughs. You can find it at YouTube at healthymeals.nal.usda.gov/healthierus-school.../lunchd-part-one and the “after” version at healthymeals.nal.usda.gov/healthierus-school.../lunchd-part-two
[v]This works great in the lab, but that’s when you have three vegetables in a row: Brian Wansink and David Just (2011), “Healthy Foods First: Students Take the First Lunchroom Food 11% More Often Than the Third,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Volume 43:4S1, S8.
[vi]These changes can be so easy even a high school kid could do them. We showed that by having a high schooler we never met implement a vegetable naming program 200 miles away from us. More at Brian Wansink, David R. Just, Collin R. Payne, and Matthew Z. Klinger (2013), “Attractive Names Sustain Increased Vegetable Intake in Schools,” Preventive Medicine, forthcoming.
[vii]Nothing makes it easier to choose the right food than when it’s convenient. Here’s some great tips here: Andrew S. Hanks, David R. Just, Laura E. Smith, and Brian Wansink (2012), “Healthy Convenience: Nudging Students Toward Healthier Choices in the Lunchroom,”
For 30 years my Food and Brand Lab and I have done research to discover useful, win-win answers to everyday questions related to shopping, dining, and eating healthier at home without sacrificing anything. These answers are also very useful to companies that want to profitably make their customers or employees healthier and happier. Please share whatever you find useful.