Using Psychology to Improve School Nutrition

The USDA announced a new initiative to use psychology to improve school nutrition in the lunchroom. Restaurants and grocery stores have been using marketing psychology for years to entice customers into buying more expensive (and often less healthy and higher calorie) items. Now the USDA wants to use that same marketing psychology to get schoolkids to choose healthier meals at school.

A team of scientists from Cornell University have been studying children’s lunchtime decisions for the last few years. After a series of observations and experiments, they’ve put together a dozen ideas on redesigning school lunchrooms. Many of these ideas seem obvious – now that they’ve put them out there.

They suggest moving the salad bar from the wall and placing it in front of the cash register. It nearly tripled the number of kids who bought salads. Consider that every major supermarket in the U.S. has those high profit-margin items that we really don’t need by the cash registers – candy, magazines, small toys. They put it there because marketing studies have shown that that’s where people will buy things.

Also, offering smaller bowls reduces the serving size that kids eat. Adults have problems judging how much food is on their plate.Β  So do kids.Β  Teaching them early, like in the school lunchroom, what a proper serving portion looks like will go a long way toward keeping them healthy later in life.

Putting fruit into pretty fruit bowls, instead of those stainless steel serving trays, gets kids to buy more fruit.Β  This one struck me as interesting.Β  Why would it matter?Β  It more than doubled fruit sales, so it clearly did matter.

The New York Times has a nifty interactive lunchroom feature that demonstrates more ideas for improving school nutrition.

Image by pingin, used with a Creative Commons license.

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  1. The fruit in pretty bowls thing sort of makes sense to me, in a way. Kids are so used to merchandising, from toys to clothes to candy, I can see that appealing to them when it comes to food.

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