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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My thoughts are... what's the harm in trying? I say make the changes to encourage our kids to make better choices in school and hope that parents are doing the follow through at home! Report
When I was in school, they had the serve model. The food could have been but at least the serving size was controlled. Personally, I think they should take the vending machines out of the schools too. Report
I read a couple of articles recently where all the schools in some province had switched over to healthy yummy meals. The result was all the teens went out to the nearest fast food places and the schools ended up with less revenue. The conclusion the nutrition experts made was there wasn't much you could do about what teens eat, that if their parents had served them hamburgers, pizza and macaroni and cheese when they were growing up, that's what they would eat - even if the schools wouldn't supply it any more. So get your kids eating veggies while they're still young. Lobbying to prevent fast food places setting up business within a mile of a school wouldn't be a bad idea either. Report
I love this article. I wish that this could happen Report
great suggestions - i love the "express lane" concept! my favorite, however, is Ann Cooper's: serve lunch AFTER recess, and not before. Report
I don't know how well our school does healthy lunch food choices but I know for breakfast sometimes I wonder. We serve breakfast to every child and we do it in our classrooms and a healthy breakfast consists of a Cheez-Its, juice and milk. The company our district goes through lets us write down comments and whenever we get Cheez-Its I write down that I don't think that they are a nutrional breakfast. Report
One of my daughters eats school lunch sometimes 2-3 times per week. She chooses when to have school lunch and she gets to choose what to have for lunch which I think they are offering healthy selections. She always chooses a fruit and or veggie to go with the main course. My other daughter will not eat school lunch because the lines are so long that she would not have time to eat it. It's interesting to find out that the middle school revamped their lunch program so that it's supposedly healthy and that's why there are long line. Report
I have no experience with school food.

But, in general, I believe that schools should serve only healthy food, being consistent with what they teach in Health class.

Secondly, healthy choices should be attractively displayed, as the article describes, but the children should be taught WHY healthy choices are better rather than just being tricked into making the healthy choice. What will they do when they have to choose in the world outside of school?

Thirdly, the school should inform the parents that cafeterias will henceforth comply with what they teach in the classroom and what good sense dictates. Report
Considering that I'm studying Psychology, I do belive that such changes would help children make the right choice about food. This kind of things even happen implicatily where they not even consious of the fact that what they picking is good for them! Report
My kids would have been smart enough to figure out that the chocolate milk was BEHIND the white skim milk. LOL Report
I think if these things have been proven to increase healthy choices then they should be implemented in all schools. We have so much useful information floating around let's change things and put them to use. Our kids deserve the best. Report
I work in the school lunch program and we are already doing many of these or variations on them. I think in our district we do a decent job at providing healthy food for the children.

I get really tired of all the flack we get about school lunches. Good nutrition starts at home. Even if we offer the best balanced meal available, what really matters is what the kids are eating outside of school time. We only feed them one meal (two for a small amount of children), but all the obesity problem is blamed on school lunch. That is just wrong as far as I'm concerned. Report
I haven't looked at the school menus here as of late. I don't have kids but...I remember when I was a kid we got slop not fit for hog in school. I quit eating at school, and sometimes started taking my lunch and over time it got less and less too. I think all unhealthy foods should be removed period. Some kids will select good choices over bad choices--I think depends on what they eat at home. But the other side of that coin is that school lunches are contracted out to places like Sodexo and other food warehouses. The govt sets the standards they don't supply the food to the schools. If you have pay school taxes regardless if you have children or not then speaking up is probably a good idea. It's your tax $$ Report
I think healthy choices start at home. My mom switched us over to skim milk when I was pretty young, 7 or 8. At first I didn't like it, but I got used to it and have drank it ever since. Same thing with bread, she stopped buying white bread and I started liking wheat. I also NEVER bought chocolate milk at school. I like it, but not as much as white milk. Saying that using wheat bread and buns is a waste because the kids don't like them says that you are doing something wrong at home. Why would you let your kids eat garbage foods at home and leave it up to the school system to try and acclimate your children to healthier choices? I plan to raise my son as a parent. His father and I are in charge, not him. We make the decisions on what foods are in the house. I guarantee he'll eat what we buy. Report
Our school system offers traditional service. My 3 stepkids eat school food every day. My own daughter (now in college) refused to eat school lunch b/c sometimes her lunch was at 10:30 a.m. and sometimes at 1:30 p.m.! She never had lunch the same time any day of the week. So she trained herself to bring a snack and just eat a full lunch when she got home at 2:10 p.m. every day. I didn't like it, but at least she was consistent. The oldest stepdaughter seems to be leaning the same way, as it is so hard for the body to adjust - all my kids eat breakfast at 6:30 a.m., so they're not hungry at 10:30 a.m.! But by 1:30, they are starving. As for quality of the food, I'm not impressed. I figure it's my job to give them quality meals when they are home, and I do the best I can. I wish the kids would brown-bag their lunch, but my husband supports their $50-a-month school lunch "habit." LOL. I think of the money we'd save ($150 a month!!) if we didn't have them buy lunch at school. I can make much cheaper, never mind healthier, lunches than the school! Report
Duh, it would help if the food actually tasted good----our local school system went to using only wheat bread---for sandwiches, hamburgers, hot dogs--to be healthier---the kids won't eat them---more waste! And they have to use stuff the gov't sells them---which is generally not healthy stuff either. Report
Interesting strategies! I hope they work. Report
If they remove the unhealthy options altogether (as NTSOHLTHNT suggests), then the kids would just smuggle junk in.

Here in England a chef, Jamie Oliver, campaigned to have heathier school lunches. And some areas made it so only healthy options were available. Parents, yes parents, were showing up at the schools at throwing burgers and chips over the fence, or squeezing them through, because they didn't want their kids to starve or be unhappy.
My daughter who is overweight wanted to eat salads when she was in middle school but wasn't allowed because that line was only for teachers. My younger daughter packs her lunch for high school because there isn't enough time to go through the lunch line and eat. Report
I think the article is trying to use persuation to change our children to make healthy eatting choices. However; I will say this, I did this as a child and my daughter and many others are still doing this. If we did not like the food we pitched it or we traded it. Or we didn't eat till we got home. This means packed meals my mother sent as well cafeteria food. Which I rarely bought. My mom was for the packed lunches. My daughter is the same way. In fact during high school she wouldn't eat till she left school at 1:00. The doctor and I told her this was bad and to at least get a energy bar but she wouldn't do it. She would go after school to the grocery or local restaurant and get lunch. When they are in high school there is only so much you can do.

As for the lady at Starbucks. I had my first Starbucks tea at the Indy Airport and it was nasty. I do not drink coffee and I am lactose intolerant so I don't go for all those drinks. However; I find it amusing that you are passing judgement on that lady with the young girl. Considering you are on Spark People and I would wager that you would be offended if someone passed judgement on you.

I also found amusing the teacher that had all the fruit things and the parent bringing cupcakes. Here's the thing be glad the parent is participating. Many parents don't participate in their child's education at all. And for all you know maybe she didn't have the time so she did what was simple. Or she might be one of the many that do things just to upset the teacher. I have a mother who was like that. She didn't care if they said bring fruit she brings what is easiet for her to get. And she feels she contributed. And a good many discussions between me and her about following what was asked took place during my school years.
As well I was forced to drink milk in kindergarten an I was an still am lactose intolerant so much so that it causes me to throwup and the teacher learned this the hard way after ignoring me explain that I couldn't drink the milk. In addititon I am allergic to peanuts and nuts and the cookies they had were made with them or on them and I again tried to explain I could not eat them and back to the corner I went. My parents and the principal had to have a sit down with her before she finally understood. So I have experienced being forced to eat so I do not want to do that to others.

I think the article presents a positive solution that will bring about better choices. Report
I have to say as an elementary cafeteria manager it is very hard to get children to eat the healthy foods. We serve whole wheat pasta, brown rice, make all our own rolls ( which are at least 50% wheat flour). We also offer salad bar once a week. I have 504 kids in my school on average I serve about 350- 400 a day. On the days we serve hamburgers, chicken nuggets, or chicken patty sandwiches I serve anywhere from 400-450. So what am I to do. If I want my lunch program to succeed I have to give them what they will buy. We also offer a fruit and a vegetable everyday. I have to send at least half of the kids back to pick one or the other up because they won't eat them. We are required to give PK-1rst grade everything (they are not allowed to choose) and it is a shame to see how much food is thrown out untouched each day. We also only serve a "dessert" maybe 2-3 times a week. I do understand we need to help kids by giving them healthy choices but it is hard to get them to eat those healthy choices!

I have 2 school age kids myself and I try to get them to make the right decision. Unfortunately when I am not there I have no way of making sure they do. I can only hope the influence I give them at home will carry over. Report
Today my students dressed as their patron saints for All Saints' Day so later we had a healthy food "party". We had orange slices, grapes, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, watermelon, fresh pineapple slices and baby carrots (sans ranch). We had milk. I asked a parent to bring 1 cookie per child but she brought these store bought cupcakes with frosting as thick as the cupcake itself. I wanted to throw them out but I didn't. Some said no thank you to the cupcakes. Several scraped the frosting off. They ate their fruits and veggies first. Many wanted second helpings of fruit and carrots. If we provide healthy choices they will eat them. Report
For the many suggesting we remove the bad choices entirely let me offer a couple of words of warning from a mom of a teenager.
1) If we do not provide both sides of the choice, how are they learning to CHOOSE the healthy option?
2) If you remove the unhealthy foods entirely, many of those who would have chosen them will instead opt not to eat at all or mooch off friends who brought unhealthy treats from home. Is that really a better option? Report
We have to try anything that might work and hope it does work for many children. I was sitting at Starbucks yesterday grading papers, drinking my bottled water (Ethos? It think it is called). A heavy set young woman who may have been an aunt, a babysitter, or a very young mother, brought her young "daughter/niece/charge" in for a huge carmel frap. with the whip cream and carmel sauce. All the bells and whistles. The young girl was about 7 or 8 and was busting out of a Disney princess dress.

It's not my business to say anything so I can come and vent here. We have to do something to teach those around us what we know. I think as I lose more weight I'll be more confident in speaking up. I have a student helping me with the eggs we are incubating in my classroom. I gave her mom a SparkPeople card and told her about SP. I don't want to offend anyone but I want to give them the opportunity to be a part of this great community. Report
Just serve wholesome food and be done with it. Why do they have to 'THINK' everything to death. The money they spend on all this research could buy much more food to begin with. Report
I think I am going to start making my sons lunch at least 3 times per week. Report
How about providing better quality foods to students ? I understand that schools are under funded. So, they have to work what they have. Of course, whatever happened to parents making their childrens lunches ? For a very long time, I brown bagged lunch. When I was eating school lunches, the portions were smaller even though the quality wasn't great. Some days, I really wasn't sure what I was eating. It was something with mystery meat. Have the fun was trying to figure out what lunch was supposed to be !! LOL !!!

We really can't blame school lunches for rising childhood obesity rates. Yes, schools are under funded and may not give some of the best choices. However, good nutrition starts at home. Parents are the first line of defense when it come to childhood obesity.

DAHEMMI - here's an article of the history of school lunch, if you're interested:
I no longer have school-age children, don't know what my grandchildren's school lunch situation is like. I do remember, in my own days in the 1950's my mother showing up to volunteer once or twice a week in the cafeteria, serving my lunch, etc.

I think children learn most about food at home. Yes, school can and does teach other, healthful options but I'm reminded of my father's 5th grade paper I have from 1921, on the evils of smoking and contrasting that to his smoking for 30+ years until my mother made him stop. What we learn or is seen at home is a trump card; we need to target the parents first, not the children. Report
Here in Australia we don't have a system like this, everyone just brings a lunchbox to school with their food. I'm not saying this is better or worse, it has it's own pros and cons. But what is the thinking behind providing lunch at school? why do it that way? Report
My high school built a second mini-cafeteria when they expanded the school (much needed as the lines in the old cafeteria were ridiculous!) In an effort to go healthy, in the second cafeteria they offered sandwiches and salads -- the lunch lady would make them, but you'd choose the fillings, like at Subway. It was awesome! I started eating much, much healthier.

(In this process, they also stopped selling giant cookies before lunch time, and I stopped eating giant cookies before lunch -- I actually lost about 10 pounds during the last 9 months of high school in part because of the healthy changes that the cafeteria made.... and gained it all back and more during the first 4 months of college...) Report
I don't let my kids eat school lunch. We pack lunch because I don't trust what type of processed icky stuff they're getting at school. Plus, my kids prefer to bring their lunch because they get more time to eat (instead of spending half of lunch in line & then having to inhale their food). I definitely think we could make more healthy options, but realistically, what kid is going to choose a salad over pizza? Report
I agree. I watched the Jamie Oliver special and the government food programs is the problem. It is nasty processed food and junk. He tried to get "real" food in the cafeteria and after he won the main "lunch lady" over, his biggest problem was the women that order the food thru the government. Even the teacher commented on the change in behavior after the new heathly lunches were served. I had real food in school. (admitting my age!!) We had hot roast beef sandwich with potatos and gravey. Meat loaf with green beans and corn. Chili with grilled cheese. Those days are gone. We need the government to step up and be responsible about the food they are feeding our children. Report
Absolutely I believe it. Report
I agree that if having students choosing unhealthy snacks and treats in the school cafeteria is a problem, then removing them entirely is the obvious solution. Nowhere does anything say that chips, candy, and cupcakes HAVE to be provided in the lunchroom, and there really isn't a reason to support those selections on the basis of free choices. Students who like those foods will have to choose the best of what's offered in the cafeteria and eat their chips at home (or not at all). It's not like anyone is going to throw a fit that chips aren't available for lunch.

Fruits, vegetables, and a few good meal choices should be all that are provided, plus milk, juice, and water as beverage choices. Most vending machines aren't necessary, not even the ones full of gatorade/powerade, which unless you are an athlete and are drinking it to replenish electrolytes is simply another caloric beverage masquerading as something healthy. Report
The meals at my kids' school really aren't that great. most of the time my Kindergartener eats a PBJ, but I know they get good food at home, so I don't mind them eating. But, when a soft pretzel and mac and cheese are considered a lunch, I have a problem with that! We get reduced lunches, so they have to get a milk, a protein, a carb, and a fruit or veggie in order to get reimbursed. Our school lunches could definitely be improved. Report
I think letting children learn to make healthy choices is an important part of their learning to live a healthy lifestyle. It's like now, I can't have cookies and cake around because I never learned to eat just a little bit. It use to be all or nothing. Now it' has to be nothing, and that deprives me, which makes me go crazy!!! Same thing for kids, if they're deprived of things, it makes them go crazy when they have access to them. So, I say, keep the desserts and chocolate milk, just make it more difficult for them to get to them - either financially or physically. That encourages healthy eating in its own way. Report
I don't have children in school any more but I do see that the school here has started a wonderful new program. It is called Plain Food. They have a chef instead of a cook and are using as much locally grown organic food as possible. The idea is to make good food the IN thing to do. I hope it is working. The teachers I know sure are liking it. Report
My HS had several different options, the quick bar (pizza, burgers) and the traditional lunch offerings. They didn't have a salad bar, but they offered pre-made salads. The problem with this was... there were only so many. You were always glad if you had first lunch over second because you were more likely to get a salad. And if you had second lunch, you rushed, because there weren't many left. If there weren't salads left, most of my peers hit the quick bar. Because it was much tastier than the traditional. Report
How about removing the unhealthy choices from the school lunch menus altogether? Then the only psychology that would need to be involved is that of how to overcome hunger vice willpower, which is something children really don't have when confronted with "I like" versus "better for you" options. Aside from that, children lack the knowledge of what's good for them nutritionally--that's knowledge acquired over time through learning and experience. Here, schools especially should lead the way and set the example. The same goes for vending machines in schools; either ban them, or allow them to be filled only with healthy snacks and drinks. Report
Don't know about the schools, but they could do with implementing this in our staff restaurant. Report
absolutely. Report