Cornell Researchers Get Kids to Eat Better by Tweaking the Lunch Line

It isn't heavy handed and it doesn't involve tofu. So just how are behavioral economics shaking up the lunch line?

In an ideal lunchroom, schoolchildren would make make healthy choices—even when presented with chips, chocolate milk, and Cocoa Krispies. Nobody likes heavy-handed advice, especially when they're hungry. So Brian Wansink and David R. Just at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs say they've found a number of low- to no-cost strategies for shaking up the lunch line, none of which involve Jamie Oliver or finger-wagging lunch ladies.

The two write in The Atlantic that they've seen dramatic results without new recipes and wihtout fancy equipment costing more than $50. Best of all, their proposed solutions "do not generate the type of reduction in lunch participation that has become the norm in schools that have taken the escarole-and-tofu approach and have eliminated the cookies and chocolate milk."

So what exactly are they suggesting? This infographic from The New York Times explains the ideas. A few highlights:

- Moving the chocolate milk behind the plain milk led students to buy more plain milk.

- Smaller bowls reduced the size of the average cereal serving at breakfast by 24 percent.

- Creating an express checkout line for students not buying desserts and chips doubled the sales of healthy sandwiches.

- Keeping a lid on the ice cream significantly reduced the amount of ice cream taken.

- Asking each child if they wanted a salad spurred salad sales by a third.

These changes are a lot more subtle than the baby carrot extravaganza, so the question remains: Can good foods be cleverly marketed without the glitzy ad campaign?

Illustration Joe McKendry via The New York Times.

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