Kids eat more healthful foods during longer, quieter school lunch

It’s hard to get kids to eat healthful foods, especially at school. But a new study suggests that, by changing the lunch environment, schools can encourage kids to make better choices without even changing their menus.

This study, conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, found that students buying school lunches select a fruit or vegetable only about half the time, and even then most don’t eat even a single bite.

The study, presented last week at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting, observed 274 6- to 8-year-olds in New York public schools as they selected what to eat in the lunchroom.

Only 58 percent chose a fruit and 59 percent chose a vegetable. But most of the kids who put vegetables on their tray didn’t actually eat them: Just 24 percent of those who opted for vegetables took even a single bite.

But the study wasn’t all bad news. The researchers also found a major influence on how much healthful food children ate: the cafeteria environment.

Kids were more likely to eat healthful foods when it was quieter in the cafeteria; when the food was cut into pieces, such as with apple slices; when lunch periods were longer; and when teachers were eating lunch in the same cafeteria.

“We saw a big jump in consumption if these factors were controlled, and they aren’t expensive things to control for,” said Susan Gross, a nutritionist and dietitian at Johns Hopkins.

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