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If You're Giving Kids A Healthy Choice For Lunch You've Already Failed

Truth: Kids go out of their way to eat french fries and not sliced apples.

If You're Giving Kids A Healthy Choice For Lunch You've Already Failed

Photo: Flickr user Jason Lam

When it comes to choosing food in school, kids know you're trying to get them to be healthy. But they just don't care—especially if there are fries or a hot dog anywhere in sight.

A new study from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab director Brian Wansink found that 6 to 8 year olds still opted for French fries as a side dish at lunch, even when the default option was apple slices.

Last year, we wrote about how kids toss their government-mandated fruit straight in the trash. When forced to take a piece of fruit from the school cafeteria and place it on their lunch tray, most of them drop the fruit in the trash before they even sit down to eat.

Three years ago, Wansink carried out another study, where kids were given sliced apples instead of whole apples. Apple sales in the participating schools jumped by 71%, and—more importantly—the number of students that ate at least half their apple rose by 73%.

"Sliced fruit is more appealing to children than whole fruit because it is easier and tidier to eat," concluded Wansink. "This study applies the principle of convenience from behavioral economics and provides an example of a scalable, low-cost environmental change that promotes healthy eating and decreases waste."

Wansink’s newly-published study gives weight to the argument that we should keep forcing kids to take fruit (and slicing it up for them). This time, Wansink’s team took a small group of kids at a summer camp, and fed them chicken nuggets and a drink from a local fast-food restaurant, on one day each of two consecutive weeks. "In the first week," says the report, "half were given French fries unless they asked for apple slices and the other half were given apple slices unless they asked for French fries." In the second week, the order was reversed.

The result was that all but two of the kids switched from apple slices to fries, and when the fries were the default option, only one child of the 15 in the study chose to switch to apple slices.

The study concludes that default options don’t really work for promoting healthier food choices and that binary either/or options are equally useless. "One solution would be to provide both options," writes the author. "Perhaps offer them a reduced amount of French fries and a serving of apple slices. While this solution is admittedly less healthy than eating only the apple slices, the latter outcome may be unrealistic."

The problem remains that kids eat what they like, which is pretty much whatever they’re used to eating at home. While promoting healthier eating in an educational setting seems like a good idea, so far the results, both in these small-sample experiments, and in real school cafeterias, are disappointing. If the parents eat badly, then so do their kids. And breaking such a cycle is going to be tricky.

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