Getting kids to eat more vegetables, easy-peasy

“Eat your vegetables” is a frequent refrain at many a family dinner table. Children are not known for their love of vegetables, and parents often find themselves prompting, cajoling, or bribing their kids to get their vitamins and minerals. But parents aren’t present at every mealtime. Even many young children eat one or more meals a day at school. How can schools get students to consume more fruits and vegetables so that their brains and bodies will get the nutrients they need to succeed in the classroom and beyond? Some clever strategies are emerging from an unexpected source: behavioral economists.

Kids know that eating vegetables is good for them, but quite simply, most of them don’t care. Children are less motivated than adults to do things that will benefit them in the future, studies show. That means that schools have to do more than simply telling kids about the importance of healthy eating. Researchers in behavioral economics – a field that examines why people do or do not engage in certain behaviors that could benefit them – have been working on finding other solutions. One place they are targeting is the school cafeteria.

More than 30 million children eat school-provided lunches every day, so schools have an enormous opportunity to shape eating habits. But the strategies that work best aren’t always straightforward or obvious, write Gregory Madden, Joseph Price, and Frank Sosa, who reviewed research on the topic in a recent article for Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. (Because it can be tricky to assess how much children actually benefit from nutritional interventions, the researchers only looked at studies with rigorous methods that measured actual consumption of fruits and vegetables, not just selection.)

Madden and his colleagues found there are things that schools can do to increase fruit and vegetable consumption before, during, and after mealtime. Many of them are quick, easy, and require no additional cost:

  • Offering choices: Children of all ages like to have options. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that kids are more likely to eat vegetables when they are given multiple choices and therefore feel in control of the ones they eat.
  • Serving vegetables first: In one clever study, children were served raw vegetables while they waited in the cafeteria line, and their vegetable consumption increased by at least 35%.
  • Making fruit easier to eat: When apples were sliced, children’s consumption increased by almost 50%. Kids also ate more oranges when they didn’t have to peel them.
  • Prompting by adults: When cafeteria workers asked children if they would like fruit, consumption increased by 86%, according to one study. This strategy is pretty much a “no-brainer” for schools.
  • Peer modeling: When children see slightly older peers eating and enjoying vegetables in the cafeteria, they are more likely to follow suit. And probably because of the power of social norms, they continue to eat more vegetables over time.
  • Giving recess its due: Studies show that kids eat more fruits and vegetables when they have a longer lunch period, are not allowed to be dismissed early to recess when finished eating, or have lunch after recess.

Of course, one of the most effective solutions is something any kid could suggest: making vegetables taste better. Studies have shown that when accomplished chefs prepare the fruits and vegetables, children consume more of them, and make it a lasting habit.

Interestingly, the authors caution against one seemly logical approach: labeling foods as healthy. “Sometimes health messaging can backfire,” they warn, possibly because most children have had the experience of a bad tasting healthy food and have developed a Pavlovian response to avoiding it. That may explain why preschoolers are more likely to eat carrots described as “yummy” than “healthy.”

If over-stretched educators and parents wonder whether the strategies above are worth the effort, there is this point to consider from Madden and his colleagues: “If healthy eating habits can be established early, longitudinal studies suggest they will continue into adolescence… and beyond…[and that] helps ensure long-term health and reduce health care expenditures.” A little bit of encouragement today can make a big difference later on. And as the authors point out, “healthy foods need some help now if they are to compete in the marketplace that is the school cafeteria.”

Drawn from “Behavioral Economic Approaches to Influencing Children’s Dietary Decision Making at School” by Gregory J. Madden, Joseph Price, and Frank A. Sosa which can be found in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.