KIDS
February 25, 2013

“Smart” Lunchrooms

Simple changes to school lunchrooms can inspire kids to put more fruits and veggies on their trays.

Last year, the USDA launched a new initiative, the National School Lunch Program, aimed at getting kids to eat healthier lunches at school. The program restricts the frequency of serving unhealthy foods like French fries and implements certain new requirements, like serving more whole grains. The program also caps the fat content of milk at 1% and requires kids to pick out a fruit or vegetable to go along with their meals.

There's just one problem. The fruit and veggie requirement can backfire and actually make kids' resistance — and rejection — of these foods even greater. With this in mind, a group of researchers tried to find a better way to encourage kids to eat their fruits and vegetables. Their idea was to gently nudge them, rather than force them, to grab an apple or other healthy food at the school cafeteria. They hoped to influence or encourage healthier behaviors, but not limit kids' choices.

After this minor redesign of the lunchrooms, students were about 13% more likely to take a fruit and 23% more likely to take a vegetable. Even more encouraging was their actual consumption of these items.

The authors implemented a series of small changes to the lunchrooms of two schools in New York State, which included grades 7-12. The changes (dubbed a “smarter lunchroom makeover”) included featuring fruits at the cash register in a tiered stand or bowl. Lunchroom workers were encouraged to ask the students questions like, “Would you like to try an apple?”

Before and after making the changes, the researchers measured the kinds of foods the kids were eating by noting, on several days, how much was left on trays after each lunch. After this minor redesign of the lunchrooms, students were about 13% more likely to take a fruit and 23% more likely to take a vegetable. Especially encouraging was their actual consumption of these items: fruit consumption rose by 18% and vegetable consumption rose by 25%. Kids were also more likely to eat the whole serving of the fruit or veggie (as opposed to a portion of it) after the intervention.

Visual cues are incredibly important when it comes to food and beverage choices. Placing healthier foods at eye-level and different colored labels for healthy and unhealthy foods can both influence what people reach for when. Simpler, more straightforward nutritional labeling also appears to make a big difference in what and how much we eat in a sitting.

The new study provides good evidence in support of the idea that easily implemented changes can have a significant effect on public health, particularly when taking into account the fact that 31 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program. The research team spent only three hours and $50 making the changes to each lunchroom in the current study. Similar changes could be made with little cost and effort from schools around the country, and could, the authors say, help address the childhood obesity trends in the US. Hopefully, as larger studies report similar results, schools will be encouraged to take the reins and help their kids make the best food choices they can.

The study was carried out by a team at Cornell University and published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

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