Getting kids excited about eating healthy foods at lunch is almost as important as providing them in the first place. But while they may be well-intentioned, strict cafeteria rules and bans can backfire and don’t always help kids learn to make good choices. Cornell University researchers have a better idea: They’ve found that by using the principles of behavioral economics—taking into account the psychological, social, and emotional factors that play into a purchasing decision—schools can easily and cost-effectively encourage children to choose healthier options in the cafeteria.
“Our research has found that there are many inexpensive ways that cafeterias can increase the appeal of healthy foods,” says Kathryn Hoy, RD, manager of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs and its Smarter Lunchroom Movement. Since the center was founded in 2010, its scientists have conducted hundreds of studies on cafeterias and worked with schools nationwide to implement their findings. Here, we outline some smart (and doable) changes that can make a big difference in the cafeteria—and at home too.
Rearrange the food. Time and again, the Cornell researchers have found that placement and convenience really matter. “Always try to improve the visibility of the foods you want kids to choose,” suggests Hoy. For example, placing nutritious foods like broccoli at the beginning of the lunch line before trays are filled up can increase sales by 10 to 15 percent. Placing plain milk in front of chocolate in the fridge helps encourage kids to grab the unflavored options, and even something as simple as keeping ice cream in a freezer with a closed opaque top has been shown to significantly reduce sales of the treats.
Consider your signage. Make attractive menus that feature a description of the day’s dishes, and hang them on a wall where kids line up to get their food. This way kids can start to get familiar with the healthy offerings and are less likely to buy something unhealthy on impulse. “By showing kids the options in advance, you can prime them to make better choices,” says Hoy.
Have fun with names. When foods—especially vegeta-bles—are given clever names, kids are more likely to eat them. Our tastes are very suggestible, so associating a food with something you like can influence how we perceive the flavor, explains Hoy. Younger kids tend to go for playful names like “X-Ray Vision Carrots” and “Super Strength Spinach,” while older kids are drawn to descriptive names like “Succulent Summer Corn” and “Crisp Celery and Carrots.” You can even consider asking students to come up with the names and make fun signs to go along with the foods.
Add some color. Fruit is often overlooked because it’s hard to see and reach, hidden under a sneeze shield in a drab metal bin. But bright and contrasting colors make food look more appetizing and prompt diners to eat more, says Hoy. Her suggestion: Place whole fruits in an attractive, colorful bowl or basket to attract students’ attention—doing this more than doubled fruit sales in one study. (If you must use metal chafing pans, line the pan with brightly colored cloth napkins or placemats and place on contrasting-color tablecloths.)
Offer options. One Cornell study found that students who were given a choice between carrots and celery were more likely to eat their vegetables than students forced to take only carrots. Also, talk to the cafeteria workers about how they’re interacting with the students. Instead of saying “You have to have a vegetable on your tray,” they could try “Would you like to have carrots or celery?” “When you use this kind of language,” says Hoy, “not only are students more likely to take the food, they also think they had a choice in the matter and therefore are more likely to eat and enjoy it.”