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Improving school meals: Effi cient ways to increase fruit and vegetable consumption by children

Everyone knows that kids should eat more fruit and vegetables. The question is how to get them to do it! Research studies from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (The B.E.N. Center) has found some simple techniques that make use of environmental cues to do just that. The B.E.N. Center has put them together in a program called the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement.

What is Behavioral Economics & Why Should I Care?

Behavioral Economics is the study of the effect that environments, situations and emotions have on choices. Using knowledge of environmental cues, behavioral economics provides tools to use in our food environment to help drive consumption of healthy foods. Economists Thaler and Sunstein suggest that “choice-architecture”, the link between how a choice is presented and the resulting decision, has the potential to increase the bond between an individual’s intention and their actual behavior1. The use of choice architecture is easy in foodservice operations as it simply requires that certain choices are encouraged, sometimes by something as simple as how the food is organized and displayed. The perception of choice has a profound impact on consumption as well2. Experimental psychology and behavioral economics studies have shown that simple cues like presentation and visual appeal can infl uence split-second decision making and consumption by children. For example, asking a child if they want carrots or celery with their lunch increased the consumption of the vegetable chosen from 69% to 91%3.

It All Comes Together in the Cafeteria

Knowing that students could be infl uenced by these cues, the B.E.N. Center completed a controlled study examining selection and consumption of vegetables when identifi ed with creative and age-appropriate names in three schools (elementary, middle and high school). Vegetables on the menu were provided with names such as, “X-Ray Vision Carrots” or “California Blend Veggies”. The names were displayed on the lunch line next to the food items. Selection and consumption rates were measured by analyzing sales, production records and plate waste. The use of names doubled consumption of carrots in the elementary school and increased selection in the high school by more than 40%4. Similar studies were completed emphasizing fruit. Whole fruit highlighted in a nice bowl by the register in high schools increased the selection of fruit by approximately 102%5.

Based on these field studies, the B.E.N. Center suggests that vegetables be identified with creative or age-appropriate names in the café and fruits be highlighted in a visible, convenient and attractive manner near high traffi c locations.

Can Schools and Homes Work Together?

Researchers have identified that the home environment is just as important as the school when encouraging healthy eating patterns. Caregivers serve as both the providers and the role models for children therefore increasing their infl uence on a child’s food preferences and ultimately consumption6. Using this knowledge, the B.E.N. Center designed a “Nutrition Report Card” which provided an accurate record to the child’s caregiver of the food students bought at lunch. For fi ve weeks, report cards of 35 students ranging in grade from kindergarten to senior in high school were delivered via email to the caregivers. After the implementation of the Nutrition Report Card, students bought signifi cantly fewer cookies while purchasing increased fruit and vegetables. In postintervention surveys, parents indicated that the report card provided an appropriate catalyst for nutrition conversations with their children7.

This study indicates that a simple summary of lunch purchases being delivered to caregivers can spark conversations about nutrition and ultimately infl uence the selection of healthy foods among school-aged children.

There are many ways in which to highlight items in the food environment to help encourage the taking and eating of healthy foods. More information can be found at: www.smarterlunchrooms.org

  1. Thaler, R.H., Sunstein, C.R., (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness., Yale University Press.
  2. Kahn, B.E., & Wansink, B. (2004). Impact of variety on consumption quantity. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(4), 519-34.
  3. Just, D.R., Wansink, B., (2009), Better School Meals on a Budget: Using Behavioral Economics and Food Psychology to Improve Meal Selection., Choices., 24:3, 1-6.
  4. Wansink, B., Just, D., Smith, L., (2011), What is in a Name? Giving Descriptive Names to Vegetables Increases Lunchroom Sales., Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior., 43:4S1, S1.
  5. Wansink, B., Just, D., Smith, L., (2011), Move the Fruit: Putting Fruit in New Bowls and New Places Doubles Lunchroom Sales., Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior., 43:4S1, S1.
  6. Savage, J.S., Fisher, J.O., & Birch, L.L. (2007). Parental Infl uence on Eating Behavior: Conception to Adolescence. Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. 35, 22-34.
  7. Wansink, B., Just, D.R., Patterson, R.W., Smith, L.E. (2013). Nutrition Report Cards: An Opportunity to Improve School Lunch Selection. PLoS One. 8(10):e72008. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072008
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