School Lunches: Kids and Healthy Eating

mehealth & fitness

"Make good choices". These are the words that my childrens' school principal uses to dismiss Tuesday assemblies. It's what we hope all of our children will do, make good choices.

As a mother, I have made teaching about healthy food choices a priority in our house and I've had feedback from teachers and other parents that tell me my children are very knowledgeable about nutrition. I'm very proud of this but I also know that they are like any other child and love a good treat. Would my children make good choices if they were given a choice between a healthy and non-healthy food item? I'm not so sure. Packing three creatively nutritious lunches every day is one of my least favorite tasks but I'll admit that I like knowing I'm providing a balanced meal that my kids will eat and will fuel them for the rest of the school day.

The fact is that millions of American children rely on the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) for at least one of their meals each day. Debate over the nutritional value provided by school lunches has garnered a lot of media attention over the past few years. Television programming like Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution have highlighted some of the more shocking realities about the foods our children are being served at school. After watching this program, my kids won't eat fast food anymore and my middle child will no longer eat chicken nuggets of any sort after seeing images of the pink goop that is manufactured into chicken nuggets. In my mind, this is proof that education is part of the solution!

Providing "Farm to Table" Programs

In the past, the National School Lunch Program's ties to the agricultural industry seems to have hampered the demand for change but in recent years "farm to table" programs have been successfully supported and in January, the USDA proposed a major overhaul of nutritional requirements as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, signed by President Obama last December. There are great examples of schools that are succeeding not only in the quality of food choices they provide but in the fact that children are making more healthy choices on their own.

Making Healthier Choices on Their Own

An initiative from Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition has proven that Smarter Lunchrooms compel children to make healthier choices. This particular concept of Smarter Lunchrooms leverages the natural psychology of choice in order to nudge students toward making better choices on their own. The techniques used are exactly the same ones used by the junk and fast food industries. Schools have seen dramatic results in the quality of choices children make simply by changing the way food choices are presented.

Does your child's school have a smart lunch room? Here are some very simple ideas and the results that Smarter Lunchrooms has achieved with little or no cost.

  • The purchase of nutritious foods such as broccoli increased by 10 to 15 percent when placed at the beginning of the lunch line rather than the middle.
  • Sales increased by 27 percent when healthy foods were labeled more descriptively, such as "creamy corn" rather than "corn."
  • Students were much more likely to eat their vegetables when given a choice between carrots and celery rather than being forced to take carrots.
  • Sales of ice cream dropped significantly when it was kept out of sight in a freezer with an opaque top.
  • Salad sales nearly tripled when the salad bar was pulled away from the wall and put in front of the checkout.
  • Salad sales increased by a third when cafeteria workers asked children, "Do you want a salad?"
  • Students without food trays ate 21 percent less salad than those with food trays, (but the presence or absence of trays had no impact on ice cream consumption).
  • The average cereal serving size dropped by 24 percent when bowls went from 18 ounces to 14 ounces.
  • Students bought more white milk when the chocolate milk was placed behind the white milk.
  • Fruit sales more than doubled when apples and oranges were placed in fruit bowls, rather than stainless steel pans.
  • Students bought 55 percent fewer desserts and 71 percent more fruit when they were forbidden to use lunch tickets for cookies.
  • Sales of healthy sandwiches doubled when a quick-moving "healthy express" checkout line was designated for students who were not buying chips or desserts.

Is getting whole grains, more low-fat and nonfat dairy products, and more fruits and vegetables into school lunches really an uphill battle? What do you usually pack in your kids' lunches?

As a freelance writer and social media marketing consultant, in Denver, Colorado, Fiona Bryan blogs about social media and all things “banter-worthy” at BanteringBlonde.com, she is also the founder of the multi-media outreach, MomActive, which strives to motivate and empower women to be positive role models for their families.

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