Is Psychology the Key to Better School Nutrition?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Professionals frequently use psychological techniques as part of their sales strategies. Similar approaches have been used in the restaurant industry as well. Psychologists help design menus, interior layouts, food presentation, and to train servers all in an attempt to influence how much we spend when we visit.

Earlier this month the USDA announced a new initiative using psychology and cafeteria design. They hope small, subtle, but intentional changes suggested by behavior scientists will help improve school lunch choice to reduce childhood obesity rates.

Some of the outlined smarter lunchroom suggestions make logical sense.

  • Offer a salad bar and make it easily accessible near the check out.

  • Place colorful fresh fruits in eye appealing fruit bowl arrangements.

  • Place chocolate or strawberry flavored milk behind the plain low fat milk so first impulses cause students to select the plain milk.

  • Provide smaller sized serving bowls to reduce portion sizes selected in self serve lines.

  • Offer a choice when possible especially for fruits and vegetables.

  • Place the vegetables at the start of the line instead of the entrée so children select them first.

  • Re-name healthy food options with creative descriptive names that entice selection.

  • Hide treats to make them less noticeable and require cash payment for desserts instead of including in meal price to discourage selection.

  • Make a "healthy express" checkout for students that do not select snacks or desserts.
Many children and teenagers resist well-intentioned lunch line interventions. Will these new strategies help reduce the childhood obesity problems If they are incorporated?

More than likely you had the long-standing lunch service model when you were in school. Students are served the daily standard meal on a school tray based on the USDA National School Lunch Program guidelines for a set price. That is what my children had in their elementary school until several years ago when their building received a cafeteria redesign. Part of the redesign also included a shift in food service method. A traditional service line remained for younger students to help them acclimate to school lunch processes. It also provided an opportunity for serving size and meal selection education. New self service lines were also created to provide older students with more food choices. Research shows that when students are permitted to decide which foods they prefer, there is less food waste, which helps the schools financial bottom line. Research also shows that choice increases student satisfaction, provides educational opportunities related to healthy food choices and increases intake of healthier foods to provide necessary nutrients for healthy bodies and minds. The new design still provided meals priced as a unit but students could decide which entrée, fruit or vegetable choice and combination they prefer. The school also had two different sections in lunch accounts to provide parents some control over their child's snack and dessert selections by separating the meal account from the snack account. Except for the fact that milk had to come from the snack account when you packed, it was nice that you didn't have to fund a snack account if you didn't want.

The new USDA lunchroom strategies appear to be based on the "offer versus serve" lunch model previously added to our building. For buildings that have this type of service model, incorporating many of the suggested strategies should not be difficult and will more than likely show favorable results. However, for those buildings that still rely on the traditional service line configuration for meal service, more planning and "out of the box" problem solving will likely be necessary to figure out how to incorporate ideas in a cost effective and time sensitive way. With tight state budgets and ongoing staff reductions to balance school budgets, it may be difficult or cost and time prohibitive to focus on psychological strategies aimed to increase healthy lunch selections that may or may not influence a child's overall weight.

Do the schools in your part of the country have a traditional service model or an offer versus serve model? Do you think changing meal service models and including subtle psychological changes would help reduce childhood obesity rates?

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