Study: Giving a boring food a cool name helps children make healthier meal choices

September 20, 2013

By Bob Jamieson

Cornell University experts have found ways to get America’s school kids to eat healthier school lunches.

They say their techniques are low cost, even no cost, and nudge students to more nutritious offerings by manipulating the lunchroom environment.

“A lot of our work is experimental. We will actually go out in the field and run experiments in schools to see what will happen,” said David Just, associate professor and co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs.

Here are some innovative ways his program and other schools are using to boost healthier eating and school lunch participation:

  • Naming and displaying names of vegetables, such as “X-ray Vision Carrots,” increased vegetable selection by 40 to 70 percent.
  • Moving fruit, say from a stainless steel bin to a basket near the cash register, boosted fruit sales by up to 102 percent.
  • Placing white milk first in coolers led to a rise in sales of up to 46 percent.
  • Creating a “healthy choices only” convenience line boosted selection of those items by 35 percent.
  • Placing chips, cookies, and similar items behind the lunch counter so they are available by request only.

Just said the center was launched in 2010 with a multimillion dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His co-director, Brian Wansink, led the group that established the USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines. Their full-time staff, at less than a dozen, is small, but their reach is far. Just said more than 22,000 schools nationally are using techniques they’ve developed or taught.

“If we have a research idea, we pilot it with a school district local to us where we can run a study that is rather cheap. If we want to do something larger, we find a large city school district nearby, like Cleveland,” Just said.

The center has found that students will make healthier choices, choosing fruits and vegetables over chips and cookies, if they pre-order lunches early in the day or the day before. “When you make a decision when you are hungry, suddenly all the bad food looks better,” he said.

Just pointed to some other innovations:

  • A new Florida program displays menus on TV screens and lets students text answers to trivia questions displayed on the screen. “It gets kids talking. It’s a social talking point,” he said.
  • Some schools increased lunch participation by emulating fast-food restaurant marketing methods, including use of clamshell packaging and logos. “It has led to incredible rises in participation. I know some school districts who have put booth seating in,” he said.

“The biggest problem we keep running into is this preconceived notion that kids won’t eat healthy choices on their own, unless we force them too. As soon as you force them too, they rebel … when it comes to school lunch, it means they stop buying it,” Just said. “There are other ways that can be more effective.”

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