Simple tips to "trick" students into healthier eating

Published in FSD K-12 Spotlight

Child nutrition professionals learn about Cornell’s Smarter Lunchroom Movement at the CIA’s Healthy Flavors, Healthy Kids conference.

Since the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, many districts have seen a decrease in participation. In some cases, this drop was reportedly due to students reacting negatively to the healthier menu items being served.

For operators looking to combat this healthy-dining aversion, Cornell’s Healthier Lunchroom Movement has created a few easy-to-implement ways to “trick” students into making better-for-them choices.

Here are a few of the tips that were shared by Kathryn Hoy, manager of the Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, at The Culinary Institute of America’s fourth annual Healthy Flavors, Healthy Kids conference in San Antonio.

  • Use choice architecture to lead students to make the outcome you want them to make without forcing them. This means you have to offer a choice. For example, ask, “would you like an apple or an orange?” if a student doesn’t have enough components to create a reimbursable meal. If you offer them a choice instead of saying, “You have to go back and get a fruit,” students will think they’ve made the choice to get a fruit and will be more likely to consume the item.
  • Stay away from “reactance.” If you don’t offer a choice, students will rebel against a threat to their freedom. For example, when schools in the Midwest switched from ketchup pump bottles to packets, student reacted negatively. First, a black market was created (students brought the condiment from home and sold to friends). Then, at graduation, the students handed the principal packets of ketchup to express their displeasure with having the ketchup pumps removed.
  • If kids think they made the choice they be will 40% more likely to repeat that decision in the future; again, choice must be offered
  • Give items, especially vegetables, cool or appealing names to describe the food. When carrots were named “X-ray vision carrots” in one school district, consumption doubled.
  • Rearrange your milk cooler to put flavored milk in the back if you want to increase consumption of non-flavored milk. When this was done in a school, it increased consumption of white milk by 46%. But be careful: If you remove flavored milk, total milk sales decline 11%.
  • Prime students to make healthier decisions. When green beans and bananas were offered on the menu, students who did not take these items were 6% less likely to take a cookie and 11% less likely to take ice cream.
  • Use prime real estate to showcase healthier options. When a salad bar was moved right by the register instead of behind the service area, sales increased 300%.
  • Set smart pricing strategies. Value is important when making decisions. For example, if you offer four cookies for a dollar, that is perceived as having high value. Instead of offering four cookies, bundle a cookie with milk to increase sales of the healthy beverage.