The debate over school lunch is focused on changing the quality of food being served. But the truth is, most school cafeterias serve (at least some) healthy food.  If only the kids would buy it. 

It’s kind of like our kitchens: there’s plenty of broccoli in the fridge but that’s not what gets eaten.  Our kids clamor for cupcakes, not for carrots.

What if the solution isn’t changing the quality of food that’s being served? What if the solution is changing the way the food is offered?

I’m not talking about smiley face sammies here — though food cut into cute shapes is kind of fun, and giving my daughter parmesan snow to sprinkle on her broccoli trees always worked like a charm with her!

I’m talking about something a little more sophisticated — Feng Shui for food!

In an editorial in the New York Times last week, Brian Wansink and his colleagues outlined 12 changes cafeterias can make to draw kids towards healthy choices and away from, well, you know…the crap.

And not a single change has anything to do with the actual food.  Instead, the strategy focuses on making nutritious foods: a) more visible, and b) the easier option; while at the same time making sweets and treats c) less visible, and d) the more difficult option.

Read the article Lunch Line Redesign.

(If you’re not familiar with Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, he’s brilliant.  Read Mind Over Matter and find out how he once made people think strawberry yogurt was chocolate yogurt.)

You should consider making the same environmental changes in your home cafeteria.

Our kids’ eating problem doesn’t start in schools.  A recent survey shows:

  • 1/3 of toddlers and 50% of preschoolers eat fast food at least once a week.
  • 25% of older infants, toddlers and preschoolers do not eat a single serving of fruit on a given day and 30% do not eat a single serving of vegetables.
  • French fries are the most popular vegetable among toddlers and preschoolers.

Our toddlers really are French Fry-eating, soda-swilling little teens in training.  Read more about this survey.

Here are the researchers’ 12 changes for redesigning school cafeterias to encourage healthier eating.

And how you can mimic these strategies in your home.

1. “Placing nutritious foods like broccoli at the beginning of the lunch line rather than in the middle, increased the amount students purchased by 10 percent to 15 percent.”

Serve vegetables (or salad) before a meal when your kids are hungry and wanting to snack. Also consider the beginning of a meal when there are no competing foods.

2. “Students given a choice between carrots and celery were much more likely to eat their vegetables than students forced to take only carrots.”

If you don’t feel like cooking multiple veggies every day, try keeping a selection of raw or cooked vegetables in serving bowls in the refrigerator.  Put these on the table during meals and ask your children to help themselves from at least two of the bowls.  Change what you put in the bowls from week to week.

3. “Putting apples and oranges in a fruit bowl, rather than a stainless steel pan, more than doubled fruit sales.”

Keep fruit in a fruit bowl in the refrigerator instead of in the fruit bin.  During snack time put the fruit bowl on the kitchen counter or table.  Consider putting out a platter of veggies too.

4. “Pulling the salad bar away from the wall and putting it in front of the checkout register nearly tripled sales of salads.”

Arrange your refrigerator and cabinets so the food you’re trying to “sell” is front-and-center.

5. “When cafeteria workers asked each child, “Do you want a salad?” salad sales increased by a third.”

Consistently “sell” the foods you’ve put front-and-center.  But don’t use a hard sell. (Notice that the cafeteria workers aren’t withholding dessert from kids who won’t eat salad. Neither should you.) Ask your children each day if they want a serving of salad, of vegetables, of any of the food you hope they’ll eat. Over time they will.

6. “Moving the chocolate milk behind the plain milk led students to buy more plain milk.”

Get down to your kids’ level and see what they see. Then make sure the milk and water are at eye level. This may mean keeping a reachable jug of water in the refrigerator, and moving other beverages to the back of a higher shelf.

7. “Giving healthy food choices more descriptive names — for example, “creamy corn” rather than “corn” — increased their sales by 27 percent.”

Channel your inner writer and get creative, colorful (or even gross). The more descriptive you are the better your sales will be.

8. “Keeping ice cream in a freezer with a closed opaque top significantly reduced ice cream sales.”

Move sweets and treats to the least visible spot in the kitchen. Consider also putting them inside opaque plastic containers.

9. “Decreasing the size of bowls from 18 ounces to 14 ounces reduced the size of the average cereal serving at breakfast by 24 percent.”

Use smaller plates and bowls to serve foods you want your children to consume less of and use larger plates and bowls for foods you want your kids to eat in greater quantities.

10. “Creating a speedy “healthy express” checkout line for students who were not buying desserts and chips doubled the sales of healthy sandwiches.”

Learn to dawdle. Be quick with healthy food and slow with sweets and treats.  (One way to ensure you’ll be slow is if you have to drive to the supermarket to buy whatever it is your kids are requesting because you don’t keep it around!)

11. “A “cash for cookies” policy — that is, forbidding the use of lunch tickets for desserts — led students to buy 71 percent more fruit and 55 percent fewer desserts.”

Consider providing a few sweets and treats and then charging your kids for extras, either with real money, TV time, or with chores!

12. Requiring or encouraging the use of cafeteria trays increased vegetable consumption: students without trays eat 21 percent less salad but no less ice cream.

Kids can only carry so much and when they have to lighten the load, you know which items gotta go.  Plate the food you want your children to eat, and have them sit while eating.  It’s your best bet for getting your kids to eat more than their one, true favorite.

If you want to know more about how the environment influences eating, read Wansink’s book Mindless Eating.

It’s an easy, informative read. More importantly, it’s makes a great case for why It’s Not About Nutrition.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~