Can schools psych kids into eating better?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday a major initiative giving $2 million to food behavior scientists to find ways to use psychology to get kids to eat better at school.

From The Associated Press:

” ‘It’s not nutrition till it’s eaten,’ said Joanne Guthrie, a USDA researcher who announced the new grants. The initiative will include creation of a child nutrition center at Cornell University, which has long led this type of research.”

“Some tricks already judged a success by Cornell researchers: Keep ice cream in freezers without glass display tops so the treats are out of sight. Move salad bars next to the checkout registers, where students linger to pay, giving them more time to ponder a salad. And start a quick line for make-your-own subs and wraps, as Corning East High School in upstate New York did.”

” ‘I eat that every day now,’ instead of the chicken patty sandwiches that used to be a staple, said Shea Beecher, a 17-year-old senior.”

” ‘It’s like our own little Subway,’ said Sterling Smith, a 15-year-old sophomore. (Hint to the school: Freshen up the fruit bowl; the choices are pretty narrow by the time Smith gets to his third-shift lunch period.)”

“Last year, the USDA asked the Institute of Medicine for advice on its school lunch and breakfast programs, which provide free or subsidized meals to more than 31 million schoolchildren each day. The institute recommended more fruit, vegetables and whole grains with limits on fat, salt and calories. But it was clear this wouldn’t help unless kids accepted healthier foods, Guthrie said.”

” ‘We can’t just say we’re going to change the menu and all of our problems will be solved,’ she said.”

“The agency requested proposals from researchers on how to get kids to actually eat the good stuff. Cornell scientists Brian Wansink and David Just will get $1 million to establish the child nutrition center. Fourteen research sites around the country will share the other $1 million.”

” ‘Findings from this emerging field of research — behavioral economics — could lead to significant improvements in the diets of millions of children across America,’ Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement…”

So what are some tricks they already know work?

“After studies by Wansink, they renamed some foods in the elementary schools — ‘X-ray vision carrots’ and ‘lean, mean green beans’ — and watched consumption rise. Cafeteria workers also got more involved, asking, ‘Would you rather have green beans or carrots today?’ instead of waiting for a kid to request them.”

“And just asking, ‘Do you want a salad with that?’ on pizza day at one high school raised salad consumption 30 percent, Wansink said.”

The last part seems like the whole supersize strategy – if they ask you, you will do it.

So what do you think:

Should school be psyching out to kids to eat better food?

Do you have any tricks you use at home to get your kids to eat better?

Should they be using more of the Sneaky Chef strategies and sneaking better nutrition into the hamburgers and chicken nuggets?

Is this research worth $2 million of our government’s money to explore?

(I have a corollary blog about the government and school lunches written by a guest blogger that I will run tomorrow morning. It’s an interesting juxtaposition with this one.)

36 comments Add your comment


October 13th, 2010
12:42 pm

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. It is MY responsibility to feed my child. I don’t need the government to tell me how or what to eat.

I think $2M could be spent elsewhere. Like teacher’s salaries… cleaning up schools…..etc….like maybe putting recess and PE back into the schools…….

But there are some who depend on the schools to raise their kids.


October 13th, 2010
1:10 pm

@JJ — yes.. we are the ones who should be raising our kids. BUT, this might not be for our kids. this might be for kids whose parents really don’t take care of the kids. so, yeah.. its a good thing to have schools push for healthier foods.


October 13th, 2010
1:28 pm

Our school started a fresh salad bar at the end of last year. It started out pretty slow, but has become more popular by the day. For a school of only about 500 students, I would say that we are serving about 40 students plus staff salad almost every day. It is kept fresh and student and staff have input as to what they would like to see in the bar. Starting next week a fresh baked potato bar, nto as good, but certainly better that the frozen crud they serve in the other lines


October 13th, 2010
1:30 pm

I’m with you JJ. I think “access to a free education” does NOT mean I provide food for you, transportation for you, extra-curricular activities for you, etc. But that is not the state of our public schools because there are too many lazy parents out there. Yes I know it’s not the kids’ fault they have cruddy parents and I’m not blaming the kids, but a little personal responsibility sure would be nice. OK, I’ve stepped off my soapbox…

If the schools (i.e. our government, my tax dollars and therefore me) are going to provide lunches for kids, then yes, they should be nutritious. We are fighting a huge battle but ultimately if schools ONLY offer nutritious, low fat, lower calorie, healthy options, then the kids don’t have much choice unless they want to go without. That means getting rid of the vending machines too. How many of these kids on free or reduced lunches turn around and buy junk out of the vending machines? I understand that using a little creativity to get kids to eat the good things isn’t exactly bad or wrong but we wouldn’t have the need for psychology if we the only option was healthy choices and limited portions on the not-so-healthy stuff.

Why doesn’t the government, who is paying for these 31 million meals a day, force stricter guidelines on what can be served? The $2m is really a drop in the bucket. Any marketing company could come up with creative signs and new names for food but forcing the schools to OFFER those choices to begin with is what needs to happen.


October 13th, 2010
1:59 pm

Take away the vending machines and the propoganda literature like “Green” off the school grounds. I give you the vending machines and you let go of the gree planet literature–compromise?


October 13th, 2010
2:05 pm

Its my job as a parent to teach my child healthy eating habits. What they do with that information is up to them. If my child choses a hamburger over a salad bar, my guess is she’s sick of salads and wants something meaty. 8 out of 10 times, I know she makes good food choices. She was raised on healthy home-cooked meals.

Funny, now that she is in college, her friends all want to go out to eat. She wants to stay home and cook…..they are slowly coming around to her ways. She will call me and tell me how the whole college “family” now sits down for dinner together. And they are all learning how to cook. They all get together, pitch in money, and go to the store and get the food, bring it back to the house and cook it. I am SO proud. I am also tickled that she got them all to start eating healthy at “home”…..and that they are all learning to cook.


October 13th, 2010
2:18 pm

for those students whose only hot/fresh meal of the day is at school, it is VERY important for us to use that opportunity to get some healthy foods into their bodies. in a county with over 50% of students on free/reduced lunches, the meal at school is important to the development of the child. i believe that if schools are going to be held accountable for the future of our children, lets through in some healthy food choices…


October 13th, 2010
2:20 pm

Schools should offer a basic and well-round nutritional lunch, period. They should not cater to the whims of kids – they are just kids and would eat candy for lunch, if allowed.

Besides, the parents (most, not all) don’t seem to teach nutrition at home and what the kids claim to eat at home is garbage. They should at least get their real nutrition at lunch.

mom of 3

October 13th, 2010
2:51 pm

Why do we have to have the government tell us what to do so often? Agreeing with JJ and GaTechMom.
Parents need to be held accountable instead of being allowed to get off the hook because the government isn’t doing something. Give me a break


October 13th, 2010
3:16 pm

I wholeheartedly agree that it’s the parent’s job to teach their children how to eat properly. However, the school breakfast and lunch programs are already in place, so it’s not a new idea for a new government program. Why don’t they make ALL of the choices healthy, low fat and nutritionally sound? When kids are hungry, they will eat or they will request it be made at home for them to bring, which usually yields healthier solutions anyway. So, if we eliminate pizza, burgers, fries, fried foods, etc. from the school lunch menus, then they have no alternative except to eat healthy. Believe me -there doesn’t need to be a $2 million dollar study to tell me that when kids are hungry they will eat! That’s the way it works at my house. I serve a meal. If you refuse to eat it, breakfast will be ready in about 12 hours. The kids who so desperately need school meals because they’re not being fed at home need healthy meals more than anyone else! Get rid of all the junk. Maybe have Fridays as “pizza” day or something. There are also many ways to make healthy sandwiches, salads, casseroles, soups, veggie burger type patties, wraps, tacos, etc. that actually taste good to kids but aren’t horrible for them.


October 13th, 2010
3:16 pm

Schools should only provide a healthy and balanced mean – period, the end. The child can brown bag it if they don’t like the meal. Do an experiement at the supermarket: check out what parents are buying in their cart. A lot of junk and pre-cooked meals or things you microwave or pop in the oven. It’s not the child’s fault, it’s the lazy fat parent who raises their own little Pork Chop who grazes on soda pop, Twizzlers and garbage. Mom and Dad are “too busy” or “too stressed out” to get in the kitchen and cook a decent meal – hogwash. The truth is Mom and Dad are fat huge hogs who buy the wrong foods, eat the wrong things and then wonder why their little double necked little porker won’t eat a school meal with veggies.


October 13th, 2010
3:26 pm

It is a parental responsibility to take care of their own children. I do not want to take care of your children. I am sick of taking care of your children. I have had my fill of paying for your children. When I was young my parents did not have much. I took PB&J every day. When I taught I watched kids take their trays and throw my tax dollars in the trash. This was not bad food. It was nutritionally sound but it went in the trash. Feed them peanut butter and fruit. Otherwise stop wasting my time with your complaining about your kids.


October 13th, 2010
3:26 pm

JJ YOU said it!! PE and recess are WAY WAY WAY more important than spending 2 million dollars in psyching kids out. Get them out there, get them running, jumping, playing,skipping and you will not have fat kids!


October 13th, 2010
3:29 pm

Just going to answer your question…Schools are going to feed kids whether they pay or not. So a parent being good or bad isn’t the issue.
Psyching out my kids to eat better? Sure why not. Put away the Ice cream and chips, most of the time they are in too much of a hurry to ask.
Tricks to better eating at home? Cut back on snacks and serve real (not overly processed) food. Eat what is on the menu or don’t’. When you get hungry your plate will be waiting on you.
Sneaky Chef ? Sure put carrots in the spaghetti sauce. But lets get real if schools were serving nuggets cut from a chicken breast, breaded and baked in the oven we wouldn’t have to worry so much about sneaking stuff in. That in addition to a couple of veg. makes a nutritionally sound meal.
Worth 2 million?? No, but “the government” thinks spending our money on things like this is a way to make up believe in “change” and that they “care”.


October 13th, 2010
3:32 pm

Agree with Photius. Most parents know absolutely nothing about nutrition, diet, and fitness, and actually do their children more harm than good by passing along their disgusting eating habits to them whilst screaming towards Washington “I know what what’s best for my own kids!” It’s pretty obvious: the vast majority of fit children have fit parents. the vast majority of fat children have fat parents. Coincidence? Sadly, we have mostly fat chidren in America. And you people want to leave it up to the parents?


October 13th, 2010
3:58 pm

I agree with Photius and Steve.


October 13th, 2010
3:59 pm

Why don’t they just call the local grocery store and ask them how to display things so kids see them? It would be cheaped than paying some point-y headed psych professor.

Ex Teach

October 13th, 2010
4:00 pm

As a former teacher, I love, love, love it when parents think that their kids are making the right choices at school. Some may be, but most aren’t. I had lunch duty when I taught high school and day after day I would watch kids get in line with their $5 bills and walk out with french fries and chicken fingers. I worked in both public and private schools over the course of 5 years teaching and saw the poor food choices over and over again.
Kids who eat lunch at school aren’t necessarily poor and many don’t have lazy parents. Some kids prefer to have a hot lunch. Some kids get to school really early for tutorials and other activities. The point is why are we serving fast food like stuff in our schools? Our children don’t need to have the option of chicken fingers.They need more good, less salty, and less processed foods. Period.

mom of 3

October 13th, 2010
4:04 pm

I am over weight. My daughters are not. I will tell you medically why I am and the ones of you that have never experienced an underactive thyroid will say she could do better. In my home with have a salad every evening with dinner and desserts are fresh fruit or no fat pudding. Fresh fruit is in the kitchen and den. Some people are overweight because they don’t know any better, some of us believe it or not really try but we look as if we don’t.

Ole Guy

October 13th, 2010
4:21 pm

Mom of 3, the answer to your question lies in Tech Mom’s observation: too many cruddy, stupid, ignorant, moronic, idiotic (etc, etc) parents who are not really parents but simply sperm n’ egg providers. The problems are many; the answers too few, and government is the very last place to look for answers. These kids are simply going to have to “see the light”, for the overwhelmingly large part, on their own.

There was a story recently about a homeless young lady who, following much in the way of social challenges, applied to and was accepted to Harvard. Her story should serve as an inspiration to those who are in search of goal-driven guidance. I wish I could locate the story so that others may share in it’s glory. Perhaps someone out there might do the research (I’m on a tight time leash, with three states I’ve got to hit in the next ten days…bye!).


October 13th, 2010
4:25 pm

How about updating the School Nutrition guidelines. They are still stuck back in about 1952 or something! That would go a LONG way to getting kids to eat better.


October 13th, 2010
4:34 pm

I agree with what JJ and several others have said: it’s not the job of government schools to teach my children how to eat, and there are about million more important things schools could spend that money on. Besides, my son’s school seems to do a pretty good job giving kid’s plenty of healthy options at lunch. My kid’s are absurdly picky eaters, but my husband and I do our best to encourage them to eat a healthy diet and set a good example with our own eating habits. Like others have mentioned, fat kids tend to have fat parents and it isn’t going to do much good for the schools to spend a fortune trying to provide these children with elaborate healthy lunch options if they are just going to go home and eat cheetos and pop tarts.


October 13th, 2010
4:51 pm

I also agree that it shouldn’t be up to the school’s to teach our kids how to eat healthy, BUT, if they are getting any government money, then they should be made to give our kids healthy choices..Have any of you seen some of the stuff that they serve in lunch rooms nowadays? I have and some of it, gives the kids no choice except to eat junk..

My two do eat pretty healthy, but as Ex Teach said, let the kids get away from the parents that are making them eat so healthy at home and they will usually choose the junk food when they are at school..


October 13th, 2010
4:53 pm

mom of 3 I feel you. Altough mine is not due to my thyroid. I am overweight (and working on getting healthier) but my children are active, healthy, thin children. They are far from fat (the doctor has me feeding the youngest a full fat milkshake on the mornings she has PE because he is afraid she will drop weight).

My kids do eat out–last night it was Pasta Fejoli (I am sure I spelled that wrong) and salad at a place and we shared some pasta. Over the weekend it was wings. We appreciate getting to do non home food a couple of times a week. There is nothing wrong with i Besides, I am horrible at making chinese.

My youngest doesn’t like to get fries (except the ones at Wild Wing) she wants fruit when we go out. She eats yogurt or fruit most days for her evening snack.

Now my kids like a good burger, or some wings. They like pizza and cookies too. However a bag of cookies last a month or more at my house–i have to keep them in the freezer or they go bad. We just don’t do that at home.

My kids actually want to eat healthy. They love picking out apples, cucumbers, etc at the store and bagging them up.


October 13th, 2010
4:57 pm

Missing from this discussion is the role of the food suppliers. The companies that manufacture the “chicken nuggets” and cheese-filled bread sticks and pizzas spend millions of dollars marketing their wares as “cost savers” to school districts.

We have probably passed the point at which a school cafeteria staff had the capability to turn a shipment of fresh vegetables into that day’s pot of soup, but working our way back to that — and getting the processed-food industry out of school kitchens — would be a good start. Restoring phys ed and recess, of course, would also help the behavior of overactive kids forced to sit in classrooms without breaks.

Giving carrots and green beans comic book names, though, is just lame. And the man getting a million bucks who claims that salad consumption rose 30 percent when students were asked needs to show some proof that many of those didn’t end up in the garbage with all the other “healthy” food students are required to add to their trays.


October 13th, 2010
5:01 pm

I also have hypothyroidism and am currently a little over weight but that is my problem as I love my food. I usually have a size range of 8 – 12. If I remember to take my thyroxine, do moderate exercise and watch what I eat I am at the lower end of the range. I also have auto-immune vitamin B12 deficiency (I am unable to absorb B12 from my food and have to have shots), IBS, an irregular heartbeat (caused by a former infection of the sack around my heart) and have recently developed muscles twitches that affect my movements (usually occurs after I have had a cold/flue and I have not a clue what is causing it) and some peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage cause by the lack of B12). It does take alot more effort to maintain a healthy weight but is possible and I do backslide quite a bit. Going back to watching what I eat tomorrow but loved the spaghetti tonight!!!

As I haven’t been to a Georgia school in a while, I am going to use what I’ve seen over here in the UK. When Jamie Oliver was trying to change what the schools served here in the UK there were moms that didn’t like it and were handing their kids fatty foods through the school fence. So I don’t know if some children that have never eaten a salad in their lives (the ones that really need it) would be willing to even try one just because someone asks if they would like to have one.

I get my kids to eat better by sometimes not cooking the veg. All of my kids dislike cooked veg and would rather have it raw as a snack.


October 13th, 2010
5:01 pm

Since the school lunch program is in place anyway, I feel that all of the junk should be eliminated, and only healthy choices should be available at school. Honestly though, I think the kids prefer the chicken nuggets, fries, pizza etc. because that’s also what they’re getting at home. Of all of the people I know, very few of them cook meals that I would consider nutritionally sound.


October 13th, 2010
5:32 pm

Also, Younger children usually like to eat vegetables that they have grown themselves. When we harvested some carrots yesterday my youngest son was thrilled because he planted them. They are all proud of the sunflowers (joint effort) and it will spill over to when they are roasted. I am currently planning my veg and flower garden for next year and as usual will ask them if they each would like to pick out a packet or two of something they would like to grow. My teen will look at me like I’ve grown horns, youngest son will pick two veg (one of which will be carrots), my eldest daughter one veg and one flower and the youngest will want to plant more fruit.


October 13th, 2010
5:53 pm

I see kids and their lunches every day-about 600 of them. I also see my school serving relatively healthy lunches. You know what happens to most of those lunches on days when the only choices are healthy ones? The whole lunch goes in the trash. One day just last week, the lunchroom served stir-fry chicken and rice for 1 choice and a pasta type combo with veggies for the other choice. The veggies to choose from were cauliflower or peas. As I passed the table where my class sits, I noticed that not much was eaten on most every tray. When I asked why-they said it just wasn’t something they liked, so most of it went in the trash. I’m not sure what the answer is. I would love to see them eat healthier, but the truth is that when it is actually offered, most of them don’t eat it anyway. Several of the boys in my class said that they would rather just be hungry for awhile until they get home and have a snack. I wonder what their snack was? Probably not something healthy.


October 13th, 2010
6:00 pm

At the Elementary School I work at if the students get too far behind in lunch payments, they get a cheese sandwich and milk. Not a grilled cheese sandwich…a piece of cold cheese on a hamburger bun. So sad that the parents can afford a very stylish wardrobe for the child, but not lunch;(

Charles Weiss

October 13th, 2010
7:31 pm

Sneaky Chef strategies definitely work and will have the kids eating better right away. Alongside, straight up veggies can be encouraged. In fact, once the kids experience the easy way using Sneaky Chef foods and are informed about it, they’ll be more likely to try those same veggies straight up. I know because it’s worked wonders in our home.


October 13th, 2010
9:19 pm

While I agree that it is not the governments job to teach my kids what to eat, the reality is that not all parents feel that way. I teach in a school where kids come to school hungry and can’t wait to eat. It doesn’t really matter what we serve, they’re hungry. Some even take leftover breakfast sandwiches home because there may not be any food in the house. Honestly, it’s much cheaper to eat unhealty food than it is to eat healthy. I eat 3 servings of fruit a day. That means that I have to go to the grocery store at least 2 to 3 times a week. I keep a fruit basket on the counter in my kitchen and believe me, my kids tear into it after school. I eat fresh veggies every day too and it does get expensive. I can only imagine how difficult it is for many of the parents at my school who live off minimum wage and receive food stamps. My grocery bill runs around $600 a month partly because I eat healty, how can they afford that when I barely can? Schools have a responsibility to provide only healthy meals. This is really a no brainer. And if the cafeteria staff wants to make extra money selling snacks, it should only be dried fruit, nuts, fruit juice, granola, etc. Not chips and ice cream.

@Sandra, unless you’re 4′8″, a size range of 8-12 is not a weight problem. A size range of 20-24 would be:)! I’m a size 8 and would look sick if I were any smaller. A size 2 is not ideal for most adult women.


October 13th, 2010
9:22 pm

Lunch???? You could perhaps give us some insight on how many kids are on free and reduced lunches while their parents have salon nails, a hair stylist, new car, new Nikes, and a Coach purse. This, as many know, is my PET PEEVE. I do not want kids to starve but their parents are spending money on things I do not and I pay for their kid’s lunch. Give them a cheese or pbj sandwich, fruit and milk…they will be fine!

O.K….I am not the queen of healthy eating but ,tonight, we just had grilled tilapia ( sp?) rice, steamed spinach, frozen corn ( hubby…not me) fresh fruit and garlic bread. Is that o.k.? You guys have really got me wondering here. I grew up on casseroles and jello, so I think I have improved ;0


October 14th, 2010
5:51 am

motherjanegoose- You are so right! Our school is between 70-80% free and reduced lunch. I see it everyday- .Cadillacs, nails and hair done, dressed in all of the best name brand clothing. But yet can’t, or I should say, won’t pay for their childrens lunches. I just don’t get how they can get over like that.


October 14th, 2010
10:55 am

To help answer the question: How do kid and parents dress name brand, nails and hair done while on free/reduced lunch?

This is because most of the time these parents and children are local street pharmacist. Street pharmacists do not have to report their income to the IRS, nor on the free/reduced lunch application. When I was in middle school, one of my friends was a street pharmacist. He came everyday with large amounts of cash on hand to pay for him and his siblings lunches and school fees because mom could not afford to do so. He was the one to take care of his family, but since he was not “of age” to get a legal job, he found something that he was able to work.

As for the females, there was a few that was willing to do anything – and I talking about ANYTHING for $$$. Basically they were prostituting themselves for what they wanted. I knew of a girl that gave head in the park for a 10-piece chicken meal, and no I am not jesting.

Brand name clothing can come at cheaper prices. Just this year I was able to find my fiancée 10 brand-named tee shirts on sale for $52 (or about $5 apiece), regularly priced at $360 so I saved over $300 on that trip alone. I find his brand-named jeans and shorts for about $15-$20 a pair. These are the same prices you would spend at Target or Walmart for the same items, so why not buy brand-named clothing when it is the same price as Walmart / Target items. I have been a budget shopper since grade school. My mother provided the budget and I picked and she approved all of my outfits. With a $200 clothes budget (for the entire school year), I would be able to find at least 10-12 brand-named outfits. My mother would buy one pair of shoes that cost about $80 because it would last the entire school year, which I cleaned daily so it seemed as if I had a new pair everyday. My sister would raid my older cousins closets for brand named clothes they didn’t want or would not wear (some of which still had price tags) and spend her budget to complete outfits.

My cousin has done my hair since I was 12 years old. Sometimes I would pay her with cash or sometimes I would pay her by doing her hair or another service such as cleaning her room. When my cousin was not available, I would ask my sister to do my hair for pay or an exchange of service. We still do this today and I am 24 years old.

If I wanted nails, my sister learned how to do a manicure and pedicure and she would do my nails, which looked professional. The beauty supply also sold pretty stick on nails for a few bucks.

Starting in middle school (when the average child understand that you need money to buy things) For excellent report card – straight A’s – you received $10. Since I had a lot of aunts, uncles, and family friends, I would easily have $100+ on report card day to spend on myself.

My mother would have her hair done because my cousin, sister or I would do it. She didn’t care for nails so she didn’t wear them. My mother had a Ford Explorer because she has A1 credit, bought the car while on sale, and talked it down to a monthly payment she could afford. She wore brand-named clothes because my sister and I would find her clothes items on sale.

My sister and I had all on the things while on reduced/free lunch. My mother’s income did not change enough to get off free/reduced lunch; we just found ways to stay within her budget to get what we wanted. My mother spent no more than the average amount than parents on this blog has admitted to spending on their own children. My sister and I may have appeared as if my mother spent a lot on us, but she did not because we knew how to do our own hair, nails, and shop for brand named clothing. For the extras like a CD player/ipod or video games, my sister and I worked at the age of 14 using a City of Atlanta PIC work permit (don’t know if they still have them today).


October 14th, 2010
11:32 am

Hiya RJ,
My problem is that every ounce of weight goes on my waist. I wouldn’t mind so much if it went else where or if it was deposited evenly but the closer to a size 12 I get, the rounder I am. I would eventually look like a meatball with a head, arms and legs stuck on. In fact, before I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism my stomach was huge and I went from a size 2 (BC – before children) to a point where I could barely get through a door. My legs and arms did get bigger but compared to the rest of me they looked like toothpicks.