Schools that collaborated with a professional chef to improve the taste of healthy school lunches saw an increase in students’ consumption of fruits and vegetables.
A recent study also showed using “environmental nudges” to promote healthy eating improved students’ selection of fruits and vegetables, but did not increase produce consumption in the long term, Harvard School of Public Health reported.
“The results highlight the importance of focusing on the palatability of school meals. Partnerships with chefs can lead to substantial improvements in the quality of school meals and can be an economically feasible option for schools,” said lead author Juliana Cohen, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan. “Additionally, this study shows that schools should not abandon healthier foods if they are initially met with resistance by students.”
Researchers conducted a school-based randomized clinical trial during the 2011 to 2012 school year in 14 elementary and middle schools in Massachusetts. The study encompassed 2,638 students in grades three through eight. Some of the schools received chef-planned meals, some used “choice architecture” (environmental nudges), and others used both.
The researchers observed that after three months of exposure to chef intervention, students selected 8 percent more vegetables than those at the control schools. After seven months, students exposed to chef intervention were 20 percent more likely to choose a fruit and 30 percent more likely to choose a vegetable. After four months, students exposed to choice architecture increased their vegetable consumption by 17 percent and fruit selection by 3 percent. The schools that combined both interventions did only modestly better than those that received solely chef intervention.
“Our study was not testing whether a local celebrity chef was good for the school lunch program. Our goal was to have a chef who could work with the whole school district to train personnel and to design more palatable recipes without increasing the cost of the meal. It was a great success and really illustrated that through persistence school-aged children can learn to like healthy whole grains, fruits, and vegetables especially if they taste good. In the end, the quality and taste of the food was much more impactful on consumption than were the effects of choice architecture,” said senior author Eric Rimm, professor in the Departments of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard Chan. “Schools should therefore put more effort into improving the palatability of school meals for the biggest impact on students’ diets. Additionally, schools may want to consider policies that eliminate chocolate milk as choice architecture was not an effective strategy to improve white milk selection.”
The findings were published in a recent edition of JAMA Pediatrics.