4 cafeteria features that encourage healthy eating

cafeteria layout

As an architect and environmental psychologist, Kim Rollings, an assistant professor of architecture and psychology at Notre Dame University, says she was “interested in how the design of cafeteria spaces could support the implementation of healthier eating.”

Rollings’ curiosity led her and her colleague from Cornell University to publish CAFES (Cafeteria Assessment for Elementary Schools), a body of research accompanied by a tool that helps K-12 operators assess a cafeteria’s physical space and see how they can modify it to encourage healthier eating.

The CAFES tool, which will soon be accompanied by a free app, analyzes, scores and offers suggestions about interior design, furniture, lunch trays and the food items themselves.

Based on her research, Rollings shares with FSD four changes operators can make to their cafeterias to help promote healthy eating. 

Photographs: Shutterstock

1. Add signage to the serving line

lunch line healthy eating

Students should be able to see the daily menu at the beginning of the serving line and healthy signage as they make their way down, Rollings suggests. Healthy items should be placed near the checkout.

2. Add music and avoid long rectangular tables

round cafeteria lunch table

To help with noise control, Rollings advises playing music during lunch time and using round tables rather than long rectangular ones, the latter of which also promotes social interaction among students. “When you have the rows of rectangular tables, it can just get overwhelming,” she says.  

3. Add a burst of color and give students a choice

colorful student lunch tray

Colorful trays can be key, as is letting students choose which healthy foods go on them, according to Rollings. “Simply having food trays that are different colors and letting students have a choice, especially when they have limited choices as a food option, gives them a little more engagement in the lunch process,” she says.

4. Slice hard fruits and vegetables

sliced fruit lunch trays

Hard fruits and vegetables should be served sliced for eating ease. “Especially for younger kids, they’re tougher to eat,” Rollings says, “and we see a lot of thrown out apples, kiwis and things like that, so when they’re served sliced, students are consuming more of those items.” 

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