by Marion Nestle
Oct 23 2010

Lunch line redesign

Brian Wansink and his Cornell colleagues have teamed up with a designer to reconfigure school lunch lines to encourage kids to make healthier food choices, according to their op-ed—it’s interactive!—in yesterday’s New York Times.

My favorite part: “When cafeteria workers asked each child,”Do you want a salad” salad sales increased by a third.

Of course they did.  From my observations, the single factor that works best in getting kids to eat real food is exactly this: an adult who cares what kids eat.

I can go into a school lunchroom anywhere in America and tell right away whether there is any chance of getting kids to eat healthfully.  Do the cafeteria workers know the kids names and talk to them about the food?

If the answer is yes, the chances are really good.

If not?  Watch Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution TV programs, if you can find them.

  • I can complain plenty about my son’s school lunch, but one thing that they do right is put a salad bar front a center. Every single kid picks up fresh vegetables of their choice (with ranch dressing to dip in, but at least they’re eating fresh veggies). It’s just the way it is, and the kids don’t even think about it. Plus, they serve fresh fruit every day at snack time – provided by the school. The kids eat it – and they actually love it!

  • LiTi

    From my observations and talking to kids – they put the veggies on the lunch tray when the lunch lady tells them… But they don’t eat them. I liked the oped in the Times, but to make the data more conclusive the veggie content of garbage cans should be checked. Anecdote – my son asked to buy lunch as part of th new middle school experience. He had pizza and French fries.

  • Hi Marion:

    I posted about this on The Lunch Tray on Friday but didn’t voice the same suspicion that LiTi expresses. In my “Notes from the Field” feature I visit and photograph the food in my kids’ lunch room weekly and one thing I’ve noticed is that a surprising number of kids do take the vegetables, despite the fact that it’s an offer-versus-serve system and they’re not required to. Nonetheless, a depressingly large number of those children leave the vegetable side dishes untouched and they go right in the trash. (A huge issue is the execution of those veggies by Aramark, as you can see from my photos of near-brown, limp spinach and bok choy). But still, it did make me wonder about this Cornell study. Maybe kids take foods to get the appease the nice lunch lady, but are they really eating it?

  • I am curious to know about the fruit drink Naked. I was present at the Nobel conference and have been moved by the knowledge I obtained there. Is it really ethical to produce even the fruit drink naked which claims to be one hundred percent fruit juice. The process of manufacturing and shipping is what I am concerned about. That as well as is Naked even healthy for you considering it has more than one serving of fruit for the day in one bottle. I just wanted to know your thoughts on Naked the new green and supposedly ethical fruit juice.

  • Sydney

    I have noticed that when kids are young, they pretty much think what you tell them to think. They are very impressionable so it’s when they’re young that we should be teaching them about food. I think it’s great what Jamie Oliver is trying to do.

  • Pingback: Behavioral Pysch in the Lunch Room, Part 2()

  • Anthro

    The best way to be sure your child is eating a good lunch is twofold:

    1) Feed him or her properly at home and instill a sense of distrust about the food industry and authority in general. This will cause some trouble along the way, but will serve the child well later on.

    2) Pack lunch at home and do not participate in school lunch at all. In some cases, some of the good food will be thrown away (confession from adult child), but decent nutrition will prevail and so will the lessons learned (she feeds the grandchildren the way she was taught).

  • This is really interesting. I do think the lunch issue has 2 parts. One is having nutritious foods available for kids and the other is the education of teaching kids about nutrition and health so that they’re more invested. There is a NYC school that has a 3 color plate as a lunch rule! I don’t know about that but I agree that the teacher or cafeteria person can make a big difference.

  • @anthro- I took my lunch when I was a kid, up until junior high, when that became seriously uncool. But now, I have to say- my daughter eats some things at day care that she won’t touch at home. So I don’t know what I’ll do when we get to elementary school. I guess we’ll check out their food offerings and go from there.

    Also, as an adult who was an extremely picky eater as a kid and is somewhat reformed now, I have to say: the adults can influence a lot, but if you have a really picky eater, you’re probably going to have to make some compromises. Much to my veggie-loving mother’s chagrin, I wouldn’t eat most veggies when I was a kid. I grew up to get a PhD in biochemistry- I truly understand why I should eat my green veggies. But I am also probably a “super taster”- green veggies taste very bitter to me, almost like chemicals. So I’ve learned ways to prepare veggies that mask that taste. Unfortunately, that usually involves adding calories, fat, and/or salt- I need a strong flavored sauce to mask the bitter. I don’t have a weight problem or high blood pressure, so that isn’t an issue for me. But since that is not how veggies are served in most lunch rooms, sorry… I wouldn’t eat them, either. Even if the lunch lady asked me if I wanted them.

  • Sheila

    We just don’t know what goes on behind closed doors at home for many children. To have a caring adult address the student by name and ask in a kind tone of voice, as if offering something special, whether the student would like some salad or a fruit, sounds like a great idea to me. I think some children will respond to this positive interaction as it is intended. It is another issue, however, whether the vegetable or fruit is presented or cooked in an appetizing way. I would be interested in polling those students who take a vegetable or fruit but don’t eat it, and ask them what could we change to make it something they would eat next time?

  • Pete

    I can’t remember ever seeing anyone eat the veggies they gave us with hot lunch at school. They were nasty! Lima beans, green beans, corn… just nasty. To this day I won’t eat green beans from a can, but love them fresh and raw. There is something to be said for how food is prepared.

    I also can’t remember a single kid who would trade left over eggplant parm for nasty school lunch. Are you seeing the trend here… school lunch = nasty. Maybe things have changed since the 80s, but no one liked school lunch. We liked the chocolate milk and cereal they gave us for school breakfast, but the gross burgers in the bags with the cheese all stuck inside, the half clod half burnt pizza… maybe tater tots were okay. I just remember that we all couldn’t wait to be old enough to get our own lunch… not that it would be healthy, but it wasn’t nasty. Monday’s were always great because there were always leftovers from Sunday dinner.

    Now candy, chips and soda… that’s another story entirely. Frito Lay knows School lunch is nasty, that’s why school is such a great market for them!

  • Anthro


    There were no “picky” eaters in our house. Mom put the food on the table and the kids ate it. Everyone was allowed one (and one only) thing to “hate” and not have to eat. We had four children and that just doesn’t allow for pickiness. Packed lunches went straight through middle school (or junior high) for us. By high school, I had to admit that peers trumped Mom and let them go their own way as long as they used their own money for the junk. They were still having a home cooked (not cold) breakfast and a decent dinner, so I thought that helped to balance the junky lunches. Today, the eat pretty well, and feed their own children very well, so the end result is what counts.


    Oh my goodness, your descriptions of school lunch gave me my first good laugh of the day! That’s the way those awful lunches always looked to me whenever I visited my kids’ schools. Those experiences always gave the incentive to keep packing the lunches at home. My kids never reported and “uncoolness” for bringing their lunch–we lived in Portland, Oregon, so maybe it was different, although the school lunch was just as appalling as you describe.

  • Sheila

    Another thing that may have changed is that when I was eating school lunches, the “cooks” actually did cook! I remember homemade vegetable beef soup, ham and beans, cabbage and corned beef, fresh vegetables, fresh cole slaw with apples, real sliced tomatoes in the first few weeks of school when they still tasted like tomatoes. We liked our school food for the most part. And milk was the only beverage served. I remember being amazed at the HUGE pile of fresh carrots I saw one time, waiting to be cooked for lunch, with a touch of cinnamon. Yes, really…in public schools…maybe we need to hire real “cooks”!

  • @anthro- as a child, I sat at the table for hours rather than eat peas. I would go to bed hungry rather than eat them. I literally threw up when my mom insisted I try them. As an adult I can tell you why- peas taste really, really vile to me. I still gag if I eat one.

    I’m glad your system worked in your house. It wouldn’t have worked in mine when I was a child, and I don’t think it would work with my daughter. So my system involves helping my daughter overcome her strong neophobia (probably also genetic) gently, and respecting her when she tells me that something tastes bad. We give her lots of opportunities to try new things, but don’t pressure her to do it. We try to make sure that what she does eat is reasonably healthy.

    I’m constantly amazed by the amount of moral judgment directed at people’s eating habits. I’m quite healthy by most objective measures- healthy weight, low blood pressure, low cholesterol. So is my daughter. I figure that is what really counts.

    And for the record- my grandmother had 7 kids, and two of them were- and are- fairly picky eaters. Her method of handling this was to tell them they could go pour themselves a bowl of cereal if they didn’t want the dinner she made. You work with the kids you get.

  • LiTi

    To sheila and Cloud – love your comments!
    Growing up, in a small country far away from the US, only kids of working mothers got to eat lunch at school, but every sixth grade student got to work at the kitchen a few time. A three course meal was cooked every day. The cook would come in every morning with bags of fresh vegetables and with her guidance we prepared the day’s meal – for the unfortunate kids whose mother did not wait at home for them… but that’s another conversation. i tell my kids that the lunches served at their school [American wealthy suburb] were freshly cooked. Six months before in another state. Than frozen. Than transported, stored, thawed and heated. Bon apetite…
    And… as a picky eater myself i did not like school lunches. And at home i was forced to finish everything on my plate, which many time meant sitting at the table for hours after everyone finished. I do not make my kids eat things they don’t like. I try to feed them well. But my control is limited. They go to friends’ houses and eat dinner there (sometimes on paper plates, but that’s another conversation…), Food gets swapped at school – my home made muffins for Oreos (a real treat to everyone involved in the transaction), candy sharing etc. I see this as part of friendship and healthy socializing. I try not to judge eating habits, especially since eating is such a cultural thing and i am a foreigner. But when i see obese kids eating chips and Lunchables, i find it very hard not to judge.

  • Pingback: Are you getting your Veggies? | Dr Brian Class()