Preordering school lunch encourages better food choices by children and increases healthy entree selection in elementary schools. We all know that buying food when we are hungry is a recipe for disaster. When we are hungry, we can be especially sensitive to sights and smells of foods that will satiate, but may lack in nutrient content. The idea also would work well in nursing homes, hospitals, hotels, camps, and other settings where people of all ages would have the choice to preorder smarter lunches.
Researchers at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (B.E.N. Center) set out to test whether or not preordering lunch would nudge students make healthier entrée choices. What if we could make our meal choices when we are full, and not anticipating the feeling of satiation we all enjoy? Would we make healthier choices?
Cornell University researchers Andrew Hanks, David Just and Brian Wansink set out to test whether or not preordering lunch would nudge students to make healthier entrée choices. They found that when preordering was available, 29.4 percent of students ordered the healthier lunch entrée compared to 15.3 percent when no preordering took place. When ordering in the lunch line healthy entrée selection was reduced by 48 percent and less healthy entrée choices increased by 21 percent.
Lunch pre-order form
In two upstate New York elementary schools, students use an electronic pre-ordering system to order lunch in the morning. Fourteen teachers agreed to enroll their classes in a four-week study to test the effects of pre-ordering lunch. These classrooms were randomly assigned to one of three experimental conditions: 1) stop preordering for the 3rd week and resume for the 4th week, 2) stop preordering for the 4th week, or 3) continue preordering for all four weeks, according to the May 3, 2013 news release, “Preordering lunch increases healthy entree selection in elementary schools.”
What did the sales records report? A significant number of healthier choices were made when students pre-ordered lunch. When preordering was available, 29.4% of students ordered the healthier lunch entrée compared to 15.3% when no preordering took place. When ordering in the lunch line, hunger mixed with the aromas and sight of unhealthy foods won out in spontaneous food decisions: healthy entrée selection was reduced by 48% and less healthy entrée choices increased by 21%.
Further details on the study
This is great news. In school, preordering can help students make healthier choices in entrées. Simply by changing the decision environment, students were nudged to select healthier entrées. Even though schools in this study used an electronic pre-ordering system, paper-based systems can be just as effective, and less costly. Either system provides an effective method to help students make more health conscious decisions at lunch. The study is published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Smarter lunchrooms make lunch choices child’s play
In January 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) passed a series of regulations designed to make school lunches more nutritious, which included requiring schools to increase whole grain offerings and making students select either a fruit or vegetable with their purchased lunch. However, children cannot be forced to eat these healthier lunches. In a new study scheduled for publication in The Journal of Pediatrics, Elsevier Health Sciences researchers determined that small, inexpensive changes to school cafeterias influenced the choice and consumption of healthier foods.
Andrew S. Hanks, PhD, and colleagues from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (B.E.N. Center) studied the effects of multiple small interventions, called the smarter lunchroom makeover, in the cafeterias of two junior-senior high schools (grades 7-12) in western New York. In the lunchroom, changes were implemented to improve the convenience and attractiveness of fruits and vegetables, according to the February 22, 2013 news release, “Smarter lunchrooms make lunch choices child’s play.”
Examples of the way food had been placed included looking at how fresh fruit is next to the cash register in nice bowls or tiered stands) and make the selection of fruits and vegetables seem standard through verbal cues from cafeteria staff, such as “Would you like to try an apple?”
The smarter lunchroom makeover took no more than 3 hours in one afternoon and cost less than $50 to implement. These types of changes are applications of the behavioral science principle termed “libertarian paternalism,” which promotes influencing choice through behavioral cues, while preserving choices.
Measuring the impact of smarter lunchrooms
To measure the impact of the smarter lunchroom makeover, researchers recorded what was left on trays after lunch, both before and after the intervention. After the smarter lunchroom makeover, students were 13% more likely to take fruits and 23% more likely to take vegetables. Actual fruit consumption increased by 18% and vegetable consumption increased by 25%; students were also more likely to eat the whole serving of fruit or vegetables (16% and 10%, respectively).
These low-cost, yet effective interventions could significantly influence healthier behaviors, potentially helping to offset childhood obesity trends. Dr. Hanks notes according to the news release, Smarter lunchrooms make lunch choices child’s play, “This not only preserves choice, but has the potential to lead children to develop lifelong habits of selecting and consuming healthier foods even when confronted with less healthy options.” These simple changes could also be effective in the cafeterias of other organizations, including hospitals, companies, and retirement homes.