Smart School Cafeterias: Nudging Kids for Better Choices

“It’s not nutrition until it’s eaten.” That’s the philosophy for school food choices of Andrew Hanks, a behavioral economist at Cornell University, and his colleagues Brian Wansink and David Just. New nutritional guidelines, published in 2012, require school cafeterias to offer more whole grains, low-fat milk, and fruits and vegetables. But offering doesn’t always equate to eating, which is where Hanks and his colleagues come in.

In a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, the team tested small, simple changes in the presentation and layout of the food service in school cafeterias. What they found was small, smart changes can really make a difference in getting kids to select and eat the foods that are more nutritious. According to Hanks, “The whole premise behind this is that, as consumers, we have behavioral biases that lead us to make certain decisions. If a food is more convenient to reach in a lunch line or store, we’ll probably take that over a close substitute. If the cookies are easier to reach than the apple, you’re probably going to take the cookie.”

Hanks’ makeover takes only three hours and costs about $50. Some of his suggestions include wheeling the salad bar into the highest traffic area, for example, and putting a selection of fruit within reach of the cash register. Easy changes that have demonstrable effects.

“”What’s important is that kids are taking things of their own volition,” Hanks says. “It’s going to increase the amount they’re actually eating.” Experts call this libertarian paternalism, and what it means is that if you force kids to take more nutritious foods, they won’t eat them. But if you give them a nudge toward a better selection, and let the choice be theirs, they’re much more likely to actually eat the better food.

Click here to read more from NPR and here to read the study in the Journal of Pediatrics.

School Cafeteria, photograph by Adolph B. Rice Studio, from the Library of Virginia / Wikimedia

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