School nutrition: A kid's right to choose

School nutrition: A kid's right to choose
Article written by David R. Just and Brian Wansink LA Times
Published on February 3, 2012 Read full article

As the federal government plans to improve nutrition in school lunchrooms, it''s important to look at what works, and what doesn''t.

Last fall, Los Angeles took a hard line on school nutrition. In an attempt to mold better eating habits in kids, the Los Angeles Unified School District eliminated flavored milk, chicken nuggets and other longtime childhood favorites. But instead of making kids healthier, the changes sent students fleeing from school cafeterias. There have been reports of a thriving trade in black-market junk food, of pizzas delivered to side doors and of family-sized bags of chips being brought from home. Garbage cans are filling up with the more nutritious food, even if kids aren''t.

The lesson? We cannot simply bully kids into eating healthful foods and take their lunch money.

As the federal government prepares to launch a similar, though less sweeping, effort to cleanse lunchrooms of troublesome foods, it''s important to analyze what works — and what doesn''t — in trying to get kids to eat more nutritious food.

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The majority of children fail to notice the small changes that lead them to eat more healthful foods. And even if they do notice, they appreciate that it was their choice to take the fruit or vegetable.

Children will choose their food no matter what we place in the lunch line, even if the choice is simply not to eat. If we impose too big a change, kids will simply bring their lunch from home or have pizza delivered at the side door. Or they may skip lunch altogether and wait for an after-school junk food binge.

In an environment where choice rules, we need to make the more healthful choice the more attractive choice, not the only choice.

Behavioral science shows this can be done at either no cost or very low cost. Heavy-handed measures might be effective at putting nutritious foods on the lunch tray, but it is crucial to remember this: It is not nutritious until it is eaten.

Better nutrition and happy kids at a low cost? That sounds like a smarter lunchroom.

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