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The Wall Street Journal: How Schools Can Get Children to Eat Their Vegetables

Researchers have discovered that a few small tricks can make a big difference

eat more vegetables

We try haranguing. We try pleading. We try bribing. But we still can’t get children to eat their vegetables.

Now schools, nutritionists and behavioral scientists are putting science to work to figure out how to get children to reach for a carrot instead of a candy bar.

And they’re seeing gains from strategies such as changing the placement of vegetables on the food line, giving vegetable dishes names that sound more appealing and hiring chefs to redesign cafeteria meals.

There’s urgency behind these efforts. The nation’s childhood-obesity rates have tripled since the 1970s, and legislators are clashing over the effectiveness of recent federal rules mandating healthier fare in schools. While it seems the regulations are getting more children to make better choices, there hasn’t been a measurable health impact just yet.

Here is a closer look at five innovative interventions that researchers have found can make a difference in schools:

Put produce up front

In April, the Howard County, Md., school system opened all-you-can-eat salad bars at three elementary schools and moved them to the front of the cafeteria. Even before children entered the lunch line, they could see an array of five different fruits and five different vegetables a day, about 80% of it locally sourced. After the change, the number of students who buy school lunches increased.

“It’s all about selection,” says Brian Ralph, director of food and nutrition services for the system, which serves 55,000 students daily. “Hopefully, when students see something they’ve never tried before—like kale or romaine lettuce—they’ll come home and encourage their siblings to try it, too,” Mr. Ralph says.

Location matters, says a recent study by Arizona State University, which found that when a salad bar in a school cafeteria is made more visible, vegetable consumption is five times as high as before.

Another strategy attacks the idea of early placement from a different angle—by giving children vegetables as snacks when they’re at their hungriest. Traci Mann, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, performed a study where she offered children cups of baby carrots before getting lunch. About half the students at the Richfield, Minn., elementary schools chowed down on the carrots—a significant improvement over the typical 10% who chose carrots at lunch.

“By giving the kids carrots and nothing else, we are catching them when they are most hungry and putting vegetables in a contest they’re likely to win,” says Ms. Mann.

Bring vegetables into the classroom

A child’s first encounter with a new vegetable is a crucial moment. Nutrition education can demystify unfamiliar vegetables and break down children’s resistance to trying them.

For example, Boulder Valley School District in Colorado takes students on field trips to farms, where they see exotic vegetables, such as purple cauliflower and watermelon radishes, being grown for their school meals. Also popular: Rainbow Days (when children are encouraged to try at least three colors of fresh produce from the salad bar) and Harvest of the Month side dishes, complete with collector cards touting fun facts instead of batting averages.

Similarly, experts at Children’s Mercy Kansas City have developed a curriculum that emphasize a healthy relationship with food. In their Food Scientist program, 5- to 7-year-olds focus on their senses to experience new fruits and greens. How does it smell? Is it bumpy or smooth? Does it crunch or slurp on the tongue? On average, even the most picky eaters learn to accept new fruits and veggies within six months.

While it’s important to make the connection between fresh ingredients and wellness, the focus is on exploration, not preaching. “It’s all about facts,” says Brooke Sweeney, medical director of the Center for Children’s Healthy Lifestyles and Nutrition. “We’ve taken out the emotion, so it’s not about ‘good food’ and ‘bad food.’ “

In New York City, the Wellness in the Schools Program instructs about 30,000 public-school students on how to shop and read labels, and conducts hands-on cooking demonstrations with fresh produce, which not only nurture culinary skills but teach habits that will last a lifetime. The initiative has now expanded to Kentucky and Florida.

Experts say that even more important than funding is starting early. “To third-graders, who have been in school since the federal regulations have been in place, a salad with chicken—not nuggets and french fries—is normal,” says Marlene Schwartz, director of the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “It’s exactly what lunch should look like.”


Read the full article via The Wall Street Journal.

Learn more about the Pediatric Weight Management program at Children's Mercy.