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A few thoughts about love on Valentine's Day
Feb 14

Better school lunches Part II: Behavioral Change

Better school lunches Part I: Nutritional Change
Feb 8

Earlier this week, we wrote about the new changes in the nutritional standards of the Federal school lunch program in the US. Today, we’re talking about some innovative ideas regarding behavioral and environmental changes that can also promote better, healthier choices.

Last week, Brian Wansink and David Just wrote an op-ed in the LA Times about school nutrition. However, their letter was not so much focused on nutritional standards or the macro nutrients in individual dishes so much, as it was focused on how one constructs the cafeteria and how one encourages the consumption of fruits and vegetables once they do end up on the cafeteria lunch line. So, why is this important?

Wansink and colleagues have studied different approaches to encouraging fruit and vegetable consumption in schools and they have learned a few things (that in retrospect, might not be so surprising):

1) If you simply take away choices and remove junk food from the cafeteria, kids will seek it out elsewhere.

2) Forcing kids to take healthy foods does not necessarily result in the actual consumption of those foods.

Damn, so what are we left to do? The answer: give kids a choice and use “choice architecture” to encourage the outcomes that we would like to see (i.e., greater consumption of fruits and vegetables). Ok, so what does that mean exactly? Let’s get into some of the details.

  • Place fruits and vegetables at the beginning of the lunch line. People tend to fill their trays, plates, bowls, etc. and you want to give broccoli first dibs over fries.
  • Make the fruits and vegetables attractive options. Arrange a nice looking fruit bowl, shine a light on it if you have one. Instead of green beans and corn, describe the options as something like “savory French-style green beans” or “rustic creamed corn.” On the flipside, don’t display the less healthy options. Ice cream can be available, but keep it in a closed freezer without a display window.
  • Provide choices between vegetables. Would you like carrots or spinach? Corn or broccoli? Wansink and colleagues have shown that simply giving kids carrots without a choice resulted in 69% of them eating the carrots. However, when given the choice of either carrots or celery, 89% of children chose and ate carrots. The lesson, rather than taking away choice, use choice architecture to guide the kids’ choices. (side note: I have learned from my sister that this works for getting kids ready for bed as well: “do you want to brush your teeth OR get your pajamas on?” rather than asking about either one separately)
  • Create an express line stocked with primarily healthy options. Adults are not the only ones who like to get through lines quickly. Again, Wansink and colleagues found that creating a healthy express line and including chocolate milk in that line decreased the selection of unhealthy foods from an alternative line (such as French fries and cookies) by 28% and increased healthy choices by 18%.
  • In a similar vein, unhealthy options could be made “cash-only” such that lunch cards and lunch tickets could not be used for those items. The unhealthy options would still be available, but the non-financial costs of obtaining them would be greater.
  • Lastly, the equipment also matters. Using smaller plates and bowls encourages smaller serving sizes and makes the same amount of food appear greater than it would on or in a larger plate or bowl. Using cafeteria trays can encourage the selection of fruit and vegetable side dishes. Think about it, with only two hands and no tray, which of the entree, beverage, or vegetable is most likely gonna be left behind?

So, if you’re interested in learning more about these strategies and the research behind them, check out this nice summary diagram of a redesigned cafeteria and Dr. Wansink’s book, Mindless Eating.

Finally, you might have already realized that there is no reason to suspect that these techniques are specific to the school cafeteria. Think about all of the ways that you can “redesign” your home environment (cupboards, kitchen, dishes, how you set the table and serve the meal) to encourage healthier choices. A few simple changes could go a long way…

Have a great weekend folks!

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