Advance Ordering for Healthier Eating? Field Experiments on the Relationship Between the Meal Order–Consumption Time Delay and Meal Content

Eric M. VanEpps, Julie S. Downs, and George Loewenstein
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Key Takeaways

Time delays produce reductions in meal calorie content even when the context of the ordering decision is otherwise held constant.

The largest reductions in meal calories appear when comparing advance orders to orders made for immediate consumption.

Increasing the length of a time delay generates a modest additional reduction in meal calories.

In three studies, we show that ordering meals in advance rather than at mealtime promotes lower-calorie meal choices.

“The finding that people select higher-calorie meals when they order immediately before consuming points to a possible negative effect of the proliferation of fast-food restaurants and packaged meals, which remove the time delays inherent in advance shopping and time-consuming food preparation.”

“Of the different possible mechanisms that drive the effect of time delay on food choice, the three studies provide greatest support for an account based on hyperbolic discounting.”


People often sacrifice their long-term interests in favor of more immediately satisfying options when making decisions for present consumption. This phenomenon is particularly evident in eating decisions, suggesting that an intervention that imposes a delay between meal selection and meal consumption may promote healthier choices. However, prior research has not tested the causal impact of relatively short time delays (0.5-3 hours) on meal content. We hypothesized and found that time delay promoted healthier meal selection, especially relative to meals selected for immediate consumption. 


We conducted two field studies of employees' online lunch orders from an onsite corporate cafeteria and a third study with university students. The first study was a secondary data analysis of over 1,000 orders that could be placed any time after 7 am  to be picked up between 11 am and 2 pm. The second study randomly assigned participants to place orders before 10 am or after 11 am. The third study randomly assigned university students to order lunch before or after class, with lunches provided immediately after class.


Lunches selected for immediate consumption, on average, had more calories than lunches selected in advance. Study 3 showed that people who made advance orders were especially likely to order lower-calorie side dishes, desserts, and beverages.​


Increased time delay reduced the calorie content of meals across all three studies, and the reduction of calories was largest in the third study where advance orders were directly compared with meals placed for immediate consumption. Meal satisfaction did not differ between advance and lunchtime orders.


Our findings identify a low-cost intervention that can be implemented by consumers and firms to promote healthier meal selection. Self-aware consumers who want to guard against their own self-control problems might plan more meals in advance, and firms might develop mobile ordering apps that allow consumers to select and pay for orders in advance to attract health-conscious customers. Though firms offering these apps may reduce consumers' impulse purchases, they might achieve greater overall benefits from a healthier brand image and increased customer loyalty.

Questions for the Classroom

  • How might restaurants or other food providers benefit from offering customers the opportunity to place advance orders?
  • Identify 3-4 different settings in which the opportunity for immediate consumption leads to consumers making decisions contrary to their own long-term interests.
  • How might a delay between the decision point and the moment of consumption be introduced in ways that are appealing to consumers?

​Full Article
Eric M. VanEpps, Julie S. Downs, and George Loewenstein (2016), “Advance Ordering for Healthier Eating? Field Experiments on the Relationship Between the Meal Order–Consumption Time Delay and Meal Content.” Journal of Marketing Research, June 2016, Vol. 53, No. 3, pp. 369-380.

Eric M. VanEpps is Postdoctoral Fellow, VA Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion, University of Pennsylvania (e-mail:

Julie S. Downs is Associate Research Professor, Carnegie Mellon University (e-mail:

George Loewenstein is Herbert A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University (e-mail:

Author Bio:

Eric M. VanEpps, Julie S. Downs, and George Loewenstein
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