I recently went to a Smarter Lunchrooms seminar for my work with Michigan’s schools and couldn’t help but think how much of it could apply to foods at home, in addition to in schools.

The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement is the brainchild of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics and fueled by star researchers like Dr. Brian Wansink and Dr. David Just. It’s all about making the healthier choices the easier choices (called choice architecture) by using strategies that cost very little money to implement. Slight changes have been shown to have surprisingly great payoffs in terms of getting kids to pick more healthy foods, especially in the school meals arena. And “small changes” is a key strategy that we all stand behind at Smart Eating for Kids.

Laura posted in June about the power of marketing and how we can use it to our advantage to make the healthier choices the more fun and easy choices for our kids. Attending this seminar inspired me to write a sequel of sorts to Laura’s earlier post.

Know the Difference between Hot and Cold

From the choice architecture perspective, there are two states: hot and cold. In a hot state — when we’re hungry, tired, stressed, short on time, etc. — we go for immediate gratification, for the sugary/salty/fatty foods, for whatever is most convenient. In a cold state, we’re rational and are more willing and able to make healthy choices or make choices that will provide payoffs later. 

Since kids are often in a hot state, if we can make healthier choices the easier choices then they are much more likely to eat these foods. Though kids are often in a hot state, wait until they’ve eaten or have started eating to talk about rational concepts. If you want to share rules, new information, talk to them about nutrition or eating, it’s best to wait until they’re fed. Same goes for grocery shopping. I still occasionally make the mistake of going grocery shopping when I’m hungry (hot state!) and always end up buying more “junk” foods – more salty snacks, desserts and fatty foods.

Tips for Applying Choice Architecture Tricks at Home

  • Give Multiple Healthy Choices: Instead of simply giving kids the option of taking a fruit or vegetable for a snack or with a meal, or forcing them to take one or the other, give a choice: “Do you want carrots or broccoli?” “Would you like apple slices or a peach?” When they feel they have choices and when those choices feel within their control, they’re much more likely to eat something within the options you offer.
  • Ownership: Let kids help you cook or pick part or all of your dinner menu on a given day. When they take part in the process and the choice, they’re much more likely to eat something – and to be excited about eating it.
  • Improve visibility: Just seeing a cookie or another high-calorie food can lead to eating it, even with the best of intentions. Flip this and it’s the same concept: Seeing more fruits and vegetables increases the interest in eating them. Make healthier foods easier to see and reach – on the counter, in the fridge, in the cabinet or cupboard – and they’re more likely to be eaten. Have a bowl of fruit set out at home on the kitchen table or counter and you may be surprised by how much more kids choose fruit as a snack or with a meal.
A simple fruit bowl on the counter makes healthy foods easy and accessible. Photo source: Microsoft Office. Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

A simple fruit bowl on the counter makes healthy foods easy and accessible. Photo source: Microsoft Office. Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

  • Enhance taste expectations: If it looks delicious, it probably WILL be! Foods can taste how we expect them to taste.
  • Use fun names for foods: Like Laura mentioned, X-Ray Vision Carrots is a fun way to turn normal carrots into something more exciting. While this doesn’t apply as easily to home, you could have your child help name an entrée/meal, or snack. “Burrito” is boring, but using a “Smarter Lunchrooms” example, “Big, Bad Bean Burrito” is way cooler – and just changing the name caused a huge sales increase in the school cafeterias they tested. I can’t imagine many teenagers would be completely psyched about this, but kids might at least go for it while they’re younger! (I picture my daughter as a teen saying, “MOM! That’s EMBARRASSING!”)
  • Make Food Visually Interesting: Try to vary the colors of your meals when you can. Kids tend to prefer more food choices and colors than adults. As has been posted on this blog before, Cornell research shows kids prefer 6 food colors and 7 food items, while adults prefer 3 of each (which means we’re likely to put fewer things on their plates than they’d like).
  • Utilize suggestive selling: The food industry is great at this. Though it can be tough at home, if your child is asking for a snack, first offer a healthy option (“Sure! Would you like some grapes, some carrots or some crackers and cheese?”). Or try to tack on a fruit, veggie or source of whole grains to something they’re already eating. Offer milk as a first choice for a drink.

Do you have any other ideas that have worked for you or for your families? For more information on these Smarter Lunchrooms concepts, visit: www.smarterlunchrooms.org

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  • Kate G. Byers, MS, RDN

    Such an interesting concept and area of study. Thanks for posting what you learned at the conference!

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