More than 30 million students in the U.S. receive school meals each day, and many rely on schools foods for up to half of their daily energy intake. The availability of healthy foods in schools can have important health implications for students.
In 2010, Michelle Obama launched the Chefs Move to Schools program, which promotes more palatable meals through collaborations between chefs and schools. Another strategy many schools have adopted is choice architecture, a method that modifies the food environment to influence consumers toward healthier choices. For instance, placing healthier foods first in a buffet line has been shown to increase overall meal selection.
A study published in JAMA Pediatrics evaluated the effectiveness of chef-enhanced meals and choice architecture on student’s food choices and consumption. The researchers found that chef-enhanced meals had a very significant effect on promoting healthier food choices among students.
Surprisingly, when chef intervention and choice architecture were combined in a school, the researchers saw no added benefit beyond the effect of the chef. In chef-enhanced schools, students selected more fruits and vegetables, and their consumption of vegetables almost doubled.
Choice architecture techniques adopted by the schools included strategies such as putting vegetables at the beginning of the lunch line and displaying fruits in attractive containers. Signage and images promoting fruits and vegetables were prominently displayed. To encourage white milk selection, it was placed prominently in front of sugar-sweetened flavored milk.
“In schools, working with a professional chef can help the existing staff provide meals that are more visually appealing and taste better,” said lead researcher Juliana Cohen. “Choice architecture is a good start, but to get kids to eat more healthier meals and reduce plate waste, [schools] also need to focus on the taste of the foods.”
Choice architecture was effective at improving fruit and vegetable selection, but the researchers did not see any change in behavior for white milk versus sugar-sweetened milk. Cohen suggests that schools may want to consider policies that limit sugar-sweetened milk
“Schools should not abandon healthier foods if students initially reject them,” Cohen warned. Previous research has shown that children need ten or more exposures to new foods before they show a preference for them, and this study found that students ate significantly more of the healthier food options once they had time to get used to them.
Chef-intervention had the most significant long-term effect on the selection and consumption of fruits and vegetables, likely because of the increased palatability of the food and an increase in the variety of food options. However, many school districts may be leery of adding a chef to their payroll.
Cohen explains that a chef’s skills can go beyond just making the food taste better. “[Chefs] can also help with inventory control and more efficient use of the foods, so overall food costs can go down,” Cohen says. There is also the potential for districts to share a chef, which means the districts would also share the cost of the chef’s salary.
This study focused on elementary and middle school students, and future studies will need to investigate interventions at the high school level. The researchers also say that future studies should investigate other choice architecture strategies.
While the choice architecture strategies observed in this study did not have a long-term effect on food consumption, it’s possible that other strategies could. For instance, a previous study showed a significant increase in vegetable selection when veggies had attractive names, such as “x-ray vision carrots.”
To read the full study, please click here.
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