Getting Kids to Eat Healthy School Cafeteria Lunches

Education News declared the Los Angeles Unified School District’s healthy lunch menu a “flop,” noting that school lunch purchases are down by thousands. Principals in that district are also reporting an increase in cafeteria waste.

Los Angeles’ new menu experience reflects the tension between providing healthy school lunches and giving kids unhealthy foods they’ve become accustomed to eating. Rather than revert to the less healthy menu, LA Unified School District decided to analyze which foods appeal and which don’t, intending to tweak the menu based on this experience.

LA is part of a nationwide campaign by schools attempt to address the rising obesity rate among children by providing healthier school lunches. Schools that have found success in changing children’s eating habits often make use of behavioral economics, Choices magazine explains. Behavioral economics seeks to take advantage of the psychological concepts of reactance and self-attribution. The essence of these principles is understanding that kids will likely resist healthy food forced on them but choose it given the right combination of influences.

Those influences may include anything from pricing to placement to options. Through experimentation, schools have learned that whatever is placed near the cash register is likely to be bought on impulse. Filling that area with fruit and veggies mean more of those and less junk food get purchases. They’ve also found that kids tend to choose what’s close at hand and easy to get to, making it imperative that salad bars and other healthy options get prime placement in the school cafeteria. Ensuring that desserts, soft drinks and chips are priced a la carte and inconveniently located reduces the amount purchased.

The Harvard Pilgrim health insurance program analyzed what factors led to success in three New England school districts that switched to healthier menus. Fresh cooking proved important, allowing school districts to buy cost-effective basics with maximum flexibility for use in varying meals.

Here are some of the other ideas that proved effective:

* offering fresh fruit and vegetable choices at every meal,

* introducing new foods in combination with old favorites,

* teaching kids from the earliest grades that salad can be a meal,

* not messing with healthy recipes that prove popular,

* customizing food to the school demographic, for example, offering traditional Hispanic foods to schools with a high Hispanic enrollment,

* making sure cafeteria foods have eye appeal, and

* ensuring the affordability of healthy food choices with carefully-researched and implemented purchasing plans.

It’s a myth that scratch cooking costs cafeterias more, Kate Adamick, co-founder of Food for America, told the New Times in August The Times reported that schools throughout the country are increasingly returning to cooking from scratch to ensure kids get healthier meals.

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