Smarter lunchrooms can help kids make healthy food choices
Fruits and vegetables are good for kids'' health. But, would kids like to eat lunches that consist of nutritious food rather than the high-fat options?
According to a new study, schools can help children eat better by giving them more options to choose from rather than forcing them to eat a particular kind of food.
Andrew S. Hanks, PhD, and colleagues from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (B.E.N. Center) studied the effects of multiple small interventions, called the smarter lunchroom makeover, in the cafeterias of two junior-senior high schools (grades 7-12) in western New York.
In the lunchroom, changes were implemented to improve the convenience and attractiveness of fruits and vegetables (e.g., fresh fruit next to the cash register in nice bowls or tiered stands) and make the selection of fruits and vegetables seem standard through verbal cues from cafeteria staff (e.g., "Would you like to try an apple?").
The smarter lunchroom makeover took no more than 3 hours in one afternoon and cost less than 50 dollars to implement. These types of changes are applications of the behavioral science principle termed "libertarian paternalism," which promotes influencing choice through behavioral cues, while preserving choices.
To measure the impact of the smarter lunchroom makeover, researchers recorded what was left on trays after lunch, both before and after the intervention.
After the smarter lunchroom makeover, students were 13 percent more likely to take fruits and 23 percent more likely to take vegetables. Actual fruit consumption increased by 18 percent and vegetable consumption increased by 25 percent; students were also more likely to eat the whole serving of fruit or vegetables (16 percent and 10 percent, respectively).
These low-cost, yet effective interventions could significantly influence healthier behaviors, potentially helping to offset childhood obesity trends.
Dr. Hanks notes, "This not only preserves choice, but has the potential to lead children to develop lifelong habits of selecting and consuming healthier foods even when confronted with less healthy options." These simple changes could also be effective in the cafeterias of other organizations, including hospitals, companies, and retirement homes.
The study will be published in The Journal of Pediatrics.