The “smarter lunchroom makeover” experiments

Making it easier and appealing for kids to choose fruits is effective and economical

girl eating strawberry

Forcing children to eat healthier may not be such a good idea. Kids will usually find a way around a compulsion or any forced activity. A new study scheduled for publication in The Journal of Pediatrics, tried to make it easier for children to make the healthier choices rather than force an way on them. These were small, inexpensive changes to school cafeterias but the changes significantly influenced the choice and consumption of healthier foods.
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 many little changes in the cafeterias of two junior-senior high schools [grades 7-12] in western New York. Ther researchers tried to make it easy and appealing to choose foods and veggies. The kinds of changes they introduced were fresh fruit next to the cash register in nice bowls or tiered stands like the candies at the checkout of a mall. They also tried to make the selection of fruits and vegetables seem standard through verbal cues from cafeteria staff who would say "Would you like to try an apple?". The changes, labelled “smarter lunchroom makeover”, took no more than a few hours one afternoon and cost less than $50 to implement. But since they were based on behavioural science, they were more effective.

Libertarian Paternalism

This was the key behavioural principle used in these changes. The principle tries to influence choice through signs and signals that may prompt a certain action but the choices are still open.

To check how successful these changes were, the researchers recorded what was left on fruit trays after lunch, both before and after the changes were implemented. After the smarter lunchroom makeover, students were 13 per cent more likely to take fruits and 23 per cent more likely to choose vegetables. But did the kids actually eat the fruits? Yes, fruit consumption increased by 18 per cent and vegetable consumption increased by 25 per cent. The kids picked a tray of fruit and also ate it…but did they finish the tray or did they throw away a half-eaten tray? After the changes, kids were also more likely to eat the whole serving of fruit or vegetables [16 per cent and 10 per cent, respectively].

These simple, cost-effective, yet valuable interventions could help 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." Since the changes are based on human behavioural sciences, they could be effective even in the cafeterias of other organizations, like hospitals, companies, and retirement homes.

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