Using Psychology to Plan School Lunches: Will It Help Reduce Obesity in Children?

Last October—during National School Lunch Week—the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it was giving $2 million to scientists to research ways to use psychology to improve how children and adolescents eat at school. As part of the package, a new center—the Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs at Cornell University—was established, and 14 other research projects in 11 states were also given funding.

Based on “behavioral economics,” the theory behind the initiative states that there are subtle ways to trick kids into making healthier choices in the lunch line.

For years, researchers have noted that small changes in a cafeteria line make big differences. A 2005 study published in Food Quality and Preference[1] discovered that changing generic names of foods to more descriptive ones (e.g., “Seafood Filet” to “Succulent Italian Seafood Filet”) increased positive feedback about the food. (Never mind that the phrase “seafood filet” is vague enough to make you wonder what you’re really eating.) The study was conducted in restaurants, but the concept can easily be adapted to a younger crowd: “Broccoli” becomes “Bangin’ Broccoli;” “Carrots” becomes “Caliente Carrots.” Similar research[2] was performed on U.S. Army soldiers, with results suggesting that, when it comes to taste, our brains can be easily fooled by labels.

Additional research has proven or suggested that:

  • Manipulating food prices (e.g., taxing sales of junk food) is generally not effective at improving Americans’ diets.[3]
  • The likelihood that children will choose healthier foods decreases as the number of tempting but less healthy options increases.3
  • Giving individuals the option to preselect healthy foods may improve well-being.3
  • Lighting, odor, and temperature can affect consumption.2,[4]
  • Displaying healthier options more prominently in the school lunch line can increase the salience of those foods; conversely, placing unhealthy foods in dimly lit, hidden, or hard-to-reach areas may decrease their salience.3

The researchers at Cornell, headed by David Just and Brian Wansink, have established a Web site (http://smarterlunchrooms.org) that updates visitors about how the initiative is going. Visit the site and let us know: Do you think these using psychology-based ideas will have the intended result? Does our subconscious really play that large a role in our decision making? What do your kids like to eat at lunchtime?

[1]Wansink, B., van Ittersum, K., & Painter, J. E. (2005). How descriptive food names bias sensory perceptions in restaurants. Food Quality and Preference, 16, 393-400.

[2]Wansink, B. (2007). Mindless eating: Why we eat more than we think. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.

[3]Just, D. R., Mancino, L., & Wansink. B. (2007). Could behavioral economics help improve diet quality for nutrition assistance program participants? Economic research report no. 43. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

[4]Wansink, B. (2004). Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers. Annual Review of Nutrition, 24, 455-479.

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