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A psychological approach to healthy school food

Cornell researchers just launched, a behavioral-psychology approach to get kids to make healthy food choices at school.


SmarterLunchrooms, an new and innovative school-lunch initiative, could change the conversation on how to get kids to eat healthy foods at school. Rather than replacing all junk foods with healthy items—which might not get eaten—researchers Brian Wansink, PhD, and David R. Just, PhD, think the answer lies in behavioral psychology. “When [health food] is forced on kids, they will resist and dislike it,” they say. “The smartest lunchroom [is] one that leads children to make healthy choices in the face of  more tempting options.” Their new, USDA-supported Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition program uses simple behavioral psychology to get kids to eat better. Some of their findings:

• If a school requires cash (not debit) for cookies, children buy fewer cookies and more fruit.

• When schools put healthier foods at the front and end of a line, children take more than if they are in the middle. One New York school increased salad consumption by close to 300 percent simply by moving the salad bar 6 feet from the wall, in a natural bottleneck in the checkout line.

• Another school increased fruit sales by 105 percent by putting apples and oranges in a pretty, well-lit basket instead of a stainless-steel bowl.

Having read Wansink's book, Mindless Eating, it seems to me that these guys are on to something. But I still think we need to start with better foods in schools, combined with smart techniques for getting buy-in from kids themselves. What’s the right balance?

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Oct 12, 2010
Here in Boulder, CO, we are very lucky to have Ann Cooper—the Renegade Lunch Lady who was so instrumental (along with Chez Panisse's Alice Waters) in turning around Berkeley's school lunch program—heading up our local school lunches. She has helped make many positive changes in the nutritional quality of lunches and breakfasts, including getting salad bars in all schools, reintroducing from-scratch cooking (which had practically disappeared from our schools!), and working to eliminate all highly processed foods, partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, refined sugar and flour, chemicals, dyes and food additives. The ironic punch line? Many kids are complaining about the new healthier items, not enough children are eating school meals, and the program may be in jeopardy if things don't change! As the mom of 7- and 9-year old often-picky eaters, I find myself pleading with them to eat school lunch (and not just because I want a break from packing their lunch boxes, I swear) and often running into vehement protestations. Thanks for posting these smart behavioral tips—I will share them with my school!

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