Harnessing the influential power of defaults for diet change
The idea of defaults—and their powerful impact on behavior—was popularized in Nudge by Harvard professor Cass Sunstein and Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler. Put simply, humans tend to go along with the status quo; whatever is default is what most people will choose simply because opting out requires additional resources, be that effort, time, or money. French fries are often the default side with a meal, and diners have to specially request a substitute when ordering. Many copiers print documents single-sided by default, double-sided requiring a visit to the settings menu. Coffee shops have traditionally defaulted to cow’s milk, charging customers extra money if they want a plant-based alternative. Our lives are subtly shaped by defaults every day, our choices nudged one way or the other by how options are structured.
With the understanding that defaults are highly influential, we at the Better Food Foundation are harnessing that power for good. Reimagine norms, and you reimagine the future. If we want a just and sustainable food system—which the planet demands of us—we need to get to work reimagining.
Most of us grew up in cultures where animal-derived foods were the default: meat is the norm, eggs are common, and dairy is automatically included in most meals. Our response? Flip food norms so people have to opt into animal products rather than having to opt out. Making plant-based food the default nudges people toward eating plant-based options, dramatically increasing their uptake. When plant-based food is the effortless choice and adding animal products requires extra resources, inclusive, planet-friendly eating is a slam dunk. That’s why we promote DefaultVeg.
Our strategy: DefaultVeg
DefaultVeg is a simple and inclusive way to offer healthier, greener, and more inclusive meals by nudging consumers toward plant-based options. A DefaultVeg menu features plant-based meals as the default, while still giving diners the choice to add or opt into animal products upon request. Simply by changing the default, consumers are much more likely to choose a plant-based meal, even when meat and dairy options are available.
There are many different ways to implement DefaultVeg, making the strategy fit for many different contexts and situations. At a buffet, make cheese an add-on at the end of the line, or keep meat at a different table, with signage indicating where it can be found. For catered gatherings like conferences and parties, have the registration state that the event will be DefaultVeg, but allow for attendees to opt into omni meals by, say, penning in a request for cow’s milk in the dietary preferences section, or checking a “request meat entree” box on a wedding invitation. For DefaultVeg menus, list one of the plant-based options first, but still integrate them with other options instead of having a separate vegan section. Don’t be afraid to play around with ratios, either; when you make the majority of the menu veg (e.g., 50% vegetarian, 25% vegan, 25% omni), diners are more likely to choose a plant-based option. If your caterer isn’t ready for an intensely plant-forward menu, you can still encourage them to use recipes that make animal products a garnish rather than the main portion of the meal. And whatever you do, make sure the veg dishes sound yummy!
It’s these very tactics we advocate for in our public campaigning, nudging conferences, coffee shops, hospitals, nonprofit organizations, houses of worship, festivals, schools, and city governments to implement DefaultVeg.
Foodservice is not one size fits all, but we can help you plan a transition to a plant-powered foodscape. To that end, the Better Food Foundation incubated catering consultancy Greener by Default, the team responsible for making New York City hospitals plant-based by default. From menu redesign to facilitating veg-friendly procurement, we can help you reach your carbon reduction goals one plate at a time.
Notable adopters and pilots
Adaptable to any context, plant-based defaults have been welcomed with open arms by dozens of businesses, institutions, meeting spaces, and events. Here are just a few of the trailblazers:
- NYC Health+Hospitals
- LinkedIn’s San Francisco office
- Jewish Council on Urban Affairs
- Aromas Cafe, at University of San Diego
- Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics
- Northwestern University’s Student Government
- Harvard University’s Office of Sustainability
- CleanMed Conference, hosted by Health Care Without Harm