Better School Nutrition: Is a Healthful School Lunch Just a Nudge Away?

Easy changes in school cafeterias might help kids make better food choices.

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There's been a lot of debate over how to improve children's and teens' eating habits while at school. Some have proposed getting rid of sodas and nutritionally poor snacks like chips and candy, but those efforts alone don't always make a difference and may have unintended consequences. (As a colleague explained in a piece on 10 things the food industry doesn't want you to know, when sugary sodas were removed from school vending machines, sugar-containing sports drinks and vitamin waters remained.)

A new website that launched this week, smarterlunchrooms.org, takes a new tack. Rather than advocating outright bans of certain foods, its goal is to "design sustainable lunchrooms that guide smarter choices." The key word there is "guide." Simply replacing pizza with whole-wheat flatbreads and fries with roasted sweet potatoes doesn't allow kids to learn how to make real-world choices, says David Just, codirector of the new effort and an associate professor at Cornell University's Department of Applied Economics and Management. "We set it up so that everything is available and the kids are enabled to see how to make decisions," he says. Making those decisions, he says, leads to good habits.

The site, which is aimed at school lunch administrators and managers but is accessible enough for parents to understand and navigate, is a clearinghouse for recent research suggesting ways that cafeterias can encourage, rather than force, more healthful eating. For example, schools might be able to discourage the consumption of sodas, candy, and other nonnutritious items by allowing their purchase only in cash, whereas fruit and other whole foods could be bought with a prepaid card. Or less healthful food might simply be placed farther away from tables than the more healthful stuff. Or, as my colleague Nancy Shute wrote earlier this week, rename healthful foods with cool names, like "X-Ray Vision Carrots," to make them more attractive. Another idea under study: whether the timing of lunch hour can affect how much kids eat.

It's important to ground all these suggestions in rigorous scientific research, says Just, because things don't always turn out the way you'd think. For example, requiring vegetables on every cafeteria tray may increase veggie consumption a hair, but it can vastly increase the amount of food that is wasted. Using labels like "low-fat" may create a so-called "health halo" that encourages people to overeat. Cornell's Brian Wansink, the project's other codirector, has studied all kinds of environmental cues that influence how much and what we eat, and he suggests 4 ways to avoid the kind of mindless eating they may promote.

These ideas for cafeterias and more healthful eating in general fall into the larger idea of designing our environment and options to encourage the "better" choice, not just in eating but in other aspects of our lives like financial planning, exercise, and the environment. The book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, lays out this philosophy (and, in fact, begins with a hypothetical anecdote about cafeteria food choice). Non-eating "nudges" might be something like making a 401(k) deduction the default option, or requiring people to opt out of, rather than opt into, authorizing organ donation. My favorite example: improving, er, spillage at Amsterdam airport urinals by 80 percent simply by putting little fly stickers in the urinals. Men, apparently, cannot resist taking careful aim.

Of course, in many arenas there will be debate over what "better" choice should be encouraged. But in the case of cafeteria food, there aren't too many people who disagree with prompting kids to consume more fruit and low-fat milk and less candy and soda. Any ideas for your own healthful eating nudges?