Study: Simple cafeteria makeover helps kids make healthier food choices

Want a surefire way to get kids to choose healthier food options? Make them look good and easy to grab, says a group of researchers at Cornell University.

In a study published Friday in the Journal of Pediatrics, the scientists suggest that children are more likely to choose healthy foods if the presentation is appealing and the items are within reach.

In 2012, the US Department of Agriculture required schools to substitute unhealthy foods with more nutritional options, but that didn’t guarantee that students would go for the healthy foods. That’s because coercion may not be the best approach, according to the researchers.

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“We believe that when children take foods of their own volition, they’re more likely to eat them,” said Andrew Hanks, a research fellow in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University and lead author of the study.

Instead, Hanks and his colleagues used a behavioral principle called “libertarian paternalism,” to persuade students to make a certain decision by making the desired – in this case, healthy—choice more accessible.

Their lab consisted of two middle and high school cafeterias in western New York. They tweaked different parts of the cafeteria to make the healthier foods look more appealing and reachable without eliminating any of the less healthy options.

“This approach not only preserves choice, but also has the potential to lead children to develop lifelong habits of selecting and consuming healthier foods even when confronted with less-healthy options,” the researchers wrote.

Some of the changes included fresh fruit displayed in nice bowls next to the register, fruit juice boxes displayed in the freezer next to the ice cream, and cafeteria staff asking students whether they’d like to grab one more fruit or vegetable item.

After recording what the students chose for lunch, the researchers looked at waste left on nearly 3,000 lunch trays. They estimated that students were 16 percent more likely to eat a whole fruit serving and 10 percent more likely to eat a serving of vegetables after the lunchroom makeover.

The study did not look at individual students’ fruit and vegetable consumption over time to know whether these healthy habits persisted.

The changes only took three hours and cost less than $50, suggesting that any school can take advantage of the benefits.

“The food isn’t nutritious unless it’s eaten,” said Hank, adding that more than 15,000 schools nationwide have already implemented at least one of the changes highlighted in the study to their own cafeteria.

“It’s not just about giving these healthy options in schools, but making sure they have access at home and other places,” Hanks said.