My friend Ryan came over for dinner last night and, as he works in an elementary school, we wound up talking about school lunches. He has an interesting idea about getting kids to eat healthier foods during the school day: The battle may be, in part, about presentation, he says.
In Ryan’s school, many of the kids are eligible for free and reduced school lunches. For those are aren’t, a full meal costs only $2.10. “You can’t make lunch for that price,” he says. If parents want to make lunches that include the same components – an entree like chicken and cheese flatbread or nachos with beef, a vegetable like broccoli salad or a squash medley, a fruit, a salad, and a drink – he may be right. The result is that most of Ryan’s fourth graders eat a school lunch every day.
The entrees are similar to what we were served when I was in public school (cheese pizza, tacos, chicken nuggets). But, on the days Ryan has lunch monitor duty, he works with what he’s got. He has his students rotate their five-compartment lunch trays so that the salad and fruit are directly in front of them and the entree is in the back. The kids eat more salad this way, he says.
Our conversation reminded me of what Cornell University’s Brian Wansink is doing to change school lunches, according to a recent Psychology Today article. Wansink also reorganizes how healthy foods are presented so that kids will eat more of them. In one school, children ate three times more salad after the salad bar was moved to a location where they had to walk around it to get to the rest of the food. Wansink has other tricks too, including presenting fruits in pretty containers and moving chocolate milk behind regular milk in beverage cases.
It seems that the foods schools offer for lunch may soon improve, thanks to the government’s new nutrition standards for national school lunch and breakfast programs. The new rules include offering fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat milk at every meal.
But to me, working with what schools have on hand still seems like the smartest, fastest, and easiest way to get children to eat healthier foods during the school day. I wonder what kind of improvements other schools could make right now just by thinking about food presentation.
Do you think presentation plays a role in getting kids to eat healthier foods? If you have kids, what do their schools offer for lunch? Are their options different from the options you had as a kid?