Can marketing make school cafeterias healthier?

Fried and processed school lunches are cheaper and more popular with kids. Can marketing make healthier options more appealing?

What do cowboys and school nutritionists have in common? They’re both constantly dealing with variations of the “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink” conundrum. In light of the growing childhood obesity epidemic, many schools now offer healthier fare in their cafeterias, alongside staples like pizza and tatter tots, but here’s the catch: healthier options are only beneficial when students actually choose them.

How many kids opt for the crisp of iceberg lettuce when the fatty allure of fried potatoes is readily available? Would your child pick the sweet tang of an orange over a slice of pepperoni? Schools may be making a more conscious effort to provide healthier food options at lunch, but studies show these choices aren’t always popular with students.

“Unfortunately healthy food still has a bad reputation, especially among kids,” says Julie Cappella, Psy.D., a psychologist at Children’s Hospital Boston’s Optimal Weight for Life Program. In addition to its boring rep, healthy food often has even less appeal at school, when many kids are dealing with academic stress or navigating the difficult social maze that is student interaction. If a child is worried about bombing an upcoming math test or nervous about asking someone to prom, comfort food like a warm bowl of macaroni and cheese can look far more inviting than an apple. “When people are emotionally eating, foods that are high in fat are often the most popular choice,” says Cappella.

In an effort to try to steer students away from fatty, processed foods and toward healthier choices, the federal government recently pledged $2 million to fund the research of food behaviorists. By using techniques found in behavioral economics— a combined field of economics and social psychology— researchers are devising ways to make healthy school lunch options more appealing. They’re testing whether factors like product placement, streamlined lines for healthy food and the power of suggestion can successfully influence kids to make better school lunch choices.

Healthy eating habits that start in childhood, have a better chance of lasting into adulthood

For instance, if a salad bar is predominantly displayed, while a rack of potato chips is more difficult to reach, it’s believed more kids will opt for salad. “Neurologically speaking, kids are more impulsive than adults, they’re more likely to take what’s easily available or right in front of them,” says Cappella. “Plus, it makes buying less healthy food a multi-stepped process. If you really want that cookie you have think about and work for it a little bit more.”

Another factor working against lunch, both healthy and unhealthy, is time restraints. Most students get under 30 minutes to eat so many experts suggest making express lines for healthy foods, while letting lines for unhealthier choices move at a slower pace. It’s believed that by making better food the quickest option, more students will pick it based on convenience or a desire to spend less time in line and more time socializing.

While a full-on ban of unhealthy food served at school cafeterias may seem like a more cohesive solution, it’s not easy to implement. Fresh, locally grown foods tend to be far more expensive than food that’s processed and mass produced. Switching to all organic materials may be healthier, but at a time when many school districts are struggling to maintain staff and programs, tripling food budgets isn’t a viable option.

Secondly, many students, especially high schoolers, are likely to resent having healthy food forced upon them, says Cappella. By giving kids options—but stacking the deck in favor of healthy food—it’s possible to increase the number of kids who choose to eat well, without resorting to a mandate.

Kids that opt for healthy food are likely to eat better than those who have it forced on them.

“There are a lot of students who are at a point in their development where they crave independence,” says Cappella. “You can make the kids want healthier foods, instead of forcing it on them.” Another added benefit of choice is that it often leads to habit, which can continue throughout a person’s life. The earlier you get children in the habit of making good food choices, the more likely they are to do so once they’ve left home and have zero meal time supervision.

“We’re all familiar with the dreaded Freshman 15, which is usually a direct result of young adults having more freedom than they’re used to when it comes to what to eat,” says Cappella. “The earlier we get kids thinking about ‘what’s good for my body,’ instead of ‘what tastes good, or what can I get away with,’ the better off they’ll be when no one is monitoring how they eat.”

What about you? Do you have an idea on how to improve your child’s cafeteria and better influence healthy choices? If so, we want to hear them! Please leave a comment bellow and help other parents brainstorm ways to make healthy school lunches more appealing for their children.