Help Kids to Eat Better at the School Cafeteria

Sneaky Tricks for Weight Loss – #5 School Cafeteria

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What if I could give you a few simple tips that would help EVERY KID in your child's school to eat healthier. Worth a read? You betcha.

I hope you’ve been enjoying my series so far.  This is my final post in the series, but I think it’s my favorite.  As the head of the USDA, Brian Wansink was given a challenge to improve the nutrition in the typical school cafeteria.  And I have to say, the simple and innovative ideas he came up with really fascinated me, especially when I heard what truly amazing results he got from them.

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Now I know that we don’t have a lot of input into the school cafeteria, but most of you are parents or grandparents of schoolchildren and some of you are teachers as well.  I’m thinking a few words in the right ear, might bring about some of these changes, particularly because they ARE very simple and more importantly cost almost nothing.

Tips to Improve the School Cafeteria

The School Principals and the cafeteria staff are very interested in getting kids to make better choices and if we can point out a few little tricks that might help without increasing costs, they may be willing to give it a try.  They have a tough job, and they can use all the help they can get.  OK, so here goes:

  1. There’s been a lot of talk about removing sodas and sugary snacks from the schools because of childhood obesity.  That does work up to a point, but it causes a lot of fuss and makes people unhappy.  Also, in the case of High School or College kids, they will just go off campus to get it or bring it from home.  There is an easier way to do it – you just make them slightly inconvenient to obtain and lets human nature take its’ course.  If the milk and water are positioned at the front of the case, while the soda is placed on the top shelf just slightly out of reach, many people will just go with the easier choice rather than stand on tiptoe. By this simple technique, they increased sales of white milk and bottled water in the cafeteria by about 40%.  Brilliant!
  2. Similarly, Brian studied the way the fruit was placed in the line.  It was not very visible and just kind of tossed into an ugly bin that wasn’t very appealing.  When he moved it into an attractive bowl in a more visible place at the beginning of the line and again by the cashier – sales of fruit went up by an amazing 102%.  When one school shined a little spotlight on it to make it more visible, sales of fruit went up by 178%.  How amazing is that? They didn’t change the type of fruit, or the price, or start a big campaign.  They just moved where they kept the fruit.  Mind blown!
  3. At the same time he set up the fruit bowl, he also put the cookies and dessert items over by the cashier.  Kids could still have them, but they had to ask the cashier to hand it to them.  Sales dropped by about 50% and more importantly, no one complained or made a fuss in any way.
  4. Salad bar usage is dismally low at schools and I can see why.  I was at a volunteer activity at an elementary school last month and they served us lunch with the kids.  I looked at the salad bar – it was pretty gross.  The food was dumped into metal bins and while it was fresh enough, it just looked unappealing.  All Brian did was pivot the salad bar around, so the kids had to walk around it to get to the entree.  They bumped into it for a couple of days and looked puzzled, but then suddenly salad bar usage started to rise.  Because it was the first thing they saw, kids started to think it was more normal to eat salads.  He also placed the food more attractively and added a bit of lighting – easy fixes = BIG results!
  5. How do you order at McDonald’s?  You order a #1 combo.  People like that – it’s easy and they don’t have to make a lot of decisions.  So, bundle your foods into numbered combos – serve a pizza combo that includes a fruit cup, or some carrots and dressing.  They may not eat them, but at least the carrots get on their plate.
  6. Human nature is often to choose the first thing that is offered.  Take advantage of that by making the healthier closer to the entrance and place the less-healthy choice towards the end of the line.  Human nature is often to choose the first thing that is offered.
  7. Make it appealing – give the foods funny names.  When they called it the Big Bad Bean Burrito, instead of just a plain bean burrito – they would sell out of them – every time!  Try power peas, a rainforest smoothie, or a superhero salad.  Make an attractive menu board that highlights the healthy choices.  What do you see when you walk into McDonald’s?  Bright colors, nice photos, attractive menu board.  Copy what works for the food giants – they’re the ones paying the marketing consultants and food engineers.
  8. Here’s the one that really surprised me – if the kids LIKE the lunch servers, they will eat more food and make better choices.  Seriously.  I can relate to that.  We have a cafeteria lady at work who is always energetic and smiling, always cheerful, and wishes everyone a “Bright and beautiful day”.  I promise you, they would have a riot on their hands if they ever tried to get rid of her – everyone is crazy about her.  Kids have it tough – a smile and a friendly greeting from the lunch servers may be the only pleasant thing in their day, and they will look forward to it.


What if I could give you a few simple tips that would help your kids WHOLE SCHOOL eat better? Worth a quick read? You betcha.

I hope this helps.  I’d love to see you guys try to talk to your school staff and see if you can’t implement some of these changes.  If nothing else, they can’t hurt, and I think they could do a great deal of good.

Most of these ideas came from a book by a brilliant behavioral scientist called Brian Wansink.  He has written several books, but these are my favorites:

Fabulous Book that is the basis for my skinny tricks blog series.

This book is the oracle of how to change your eating habits.

Here’s a link to an earlier post I did on his previous book Mindless Eating.  Again, it has tons of ideas for how to easily change your eating habits for the better and how to get your family on the healthy eating bandwagon too, without ANY whining and fussing from your kids OR your husband!

Here are the other posts coming up in the series (I’ll add links once they are published.)

#1 – Beat the Buffet – Posted Jan 1st

#2 – Skinny Size Your Kitchen – Posted Jan 2nd

#3 – Snack Proof Your House – Posted Jan 3rd

#4 – Outsmart the Grocery Store – Posted Jan 4th

#5 – Revamp the School Cafeteria – Today

Other posts you may enjoy:

Are Gym Memberships a Good Deal?

5 Fabulous Products to Make Weight Loss EASIER

New Year’s Motivation – My BEST Weight Loss Tips

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