How to Make School Lunches Healthier

(Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

An article in Choices by David R. Just and Brian Wansink illustrates how school administrators can use behavioral economics to nudge kids toward good eating choices and away from the obesity-causing junk food. Just and Wansink point out that administrators often face a difficult choice between nutritious meals and the bottom line:

It may be possible to replace the standard cheese pizza on white flour crust with pizza smothered in spinach, artichoke hearts, and other vegetables on a whole wheat flaxseed crust. But the healthier pizza is more expensive, and fewer children may want to eat it. Hence many school districts walk a tightrope. School districts must increase the health content of their sales while trying to avoid any reduction in their financial viability. Eliminating the less nutritional items often means eliminating the meal budget’s highest margin items. Further, child patronage of the school lunch program is understandably dependent upon schools offering foods that students are familiar with and that they like, and that will satisfy their appetites.

Even something as simple as rearranging the food can result in healthier choices:

In one Minnesota school, we found that cash registers were one of the bottlenecks in the system. While students waited to pay, they were faced with a wide array of grain-based snacks, chips, granola bars, and desserts. This appeared to generate a number of impulse purchases. While one option would have been to move these temptations, this option would have almost assuredly decreased revenue. A better option was to replace these snacks with an array of fruits. This way, when students were waiting to check out, the impulse temptations were healthier options. Fruit sales increased, snack food sales decreased, and total revenue did not significantly decrease. Part of the increase in fruit sales may have also been aided by the inclusion of a wider variety of fruits, plums and peaches, in addition to the standard trio of apples, bananas, and oranges.

(HT: The Monkey Cage)


This is brilliant. It's the lunchline equivalent of putting a bowl of fruit on your table or baby carrots in the front of the fridge so you're less tempted by other items. I love this solution a lot more than cutting calories for the whole population at large. My athlete niece and nephews find themselves starving an hour after lunch, and they pay more for 'less' so to speak. I feel bad for them, and don't look forward to sending my kids to school for lunch because of this. (This is purely from a mom/aunt standpoint and not political in the slightest.) I'm sure other kids that don't get enough nutrition at home and are relying on 'free lunch' are also feeling the pinch.


Maybe you just eliminate unhealthy choices all together? Stop selling candy and chips?

manan choksi


I am running a school in India called Udgam School ( I have found that children if not given food of their choice prefer to go home hungry. This is even worse with finicky children when they don't eat cheese sandwich with whole wheat bread (even when the whole wheat bread has only 40% whole wheat).

I think the solution is simultaneous education of parents, teachers and of course students along with providing healthier options to them.

I have done study in academic performance, attendance and physical fitness of the children preferring junk food. The result is that sooner or later they fall behind the class average in mostly all of the parameters.

The school can also think about subsiding the cost of healthy food. But that is skewed economics, it helps only people who don't bring lunch boxes...


Sounds good, but I live in a large school district that doesn't seem to be a model of efficiency. It is one thing to manage the logistics of pre-packaged foods that have a long shelf-life, but the logistics of ordering, storing and distributing fresh fruits and vegetables I imagine is a whole different (and expensive) proposition.


What about making micro changes? Of course replacing cheese pizza with spinach whole wheat pizza is going to fail. But what about making a pizza with a little less cheese and a sauce that doesn't contain HFCS? Or for the concerns about perishable fruits, why not no-sugar-added applesauce or fruit cups? Or corn that isn't bathed in butter? Or a turkey hot dog instead of a pork one? Also, maybe the problem is an issue of choice. A generation ago kids had one or two hot lunches to pick from, not an array of a la carte buffets and snack shelves. Policy makers seem more focused on trying to socially engineer people into a model Whole-Foods customer, when in reality all that is needed is some micro changes to nudge the nutrition up a little and take calories down a little.


My sister worked on improving healthy food options in her school district, and one of the problems she found was that schools were providing children with whole, uncut fruit. Whole apples and oranges are difficult for young kids to eat - we're talking about elementary and middle school-age children here - and as a result they were just throwing it away. Over time she was able to convince the school's foodservice provider to cut up the fruit, and voila, the kids started eating it.

Dave F.

I hate to say it, but it works just as well with adults...


I recently watched the documentary A Place at the Table about hunger in the US, and it does a great job explaining the challenges faced by school systems in trying to provide affordable and healthy meals, and also some efforts to get students more familiar with healthier foods.


This touches on something that puzzles me: why does whole wheat cost more than white? That's true even at the flour level: in the bulk bins at my usual store, whole wheat flour costs roughly 25-40% more than plain white, yet the millers must go through extra processing steps (adding cost) to produce white flour. It doesn't seem as though the small market for wheat germ & bran (also available in bulk at that store) would justify the cost of separating the components...



The problem with this approach is not that it's ineffective. It's that it's not fixing the root cause of the problem. Even if you successfully push kids to so-called "healthier" high carbohydrate foods, you're not going to make much of a difference to the obesity problem. Schools have to meet USDA guidelines, which are woefully out-of-step with modern science. If they don't, they lose federal funding.


Actually, the USDA guidelines for school meals that are in place starting this school year are right in line with science and are already bringing a lot of great changes to school cafeterias. This was a part of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act that was passed in December 2010. This act also gave USDA the authority to set guidelines for all other foods sold on the school campus (vending machines, school stores, a la carte lines, etc.) The proposed guidelines were released last month and are open for public comment until April.

The root causes of the traditional problems of school lunch are being "fixed", but what remains is a perception problem as it will take some time for the implementation to take place. Now that the elections are over, I hope that the media starts reporting a little more accurately about the changes that are taking place in school cafeterias so we can all be more informed and stop beating up schools that are truly doing their best to feed students healthy food.



Is it a uniquely American thing to feed kids at school? Where I'm from in New Zealand schools don't have cafeterias - it's the responsibility of the parents to feed their kids and send them to school with a packed lunch or money. Seems weird to put the burden of feeding kids on the school.

Then again I find it odd how many American workplaces feed their staff in a similar way - work cafeterias of that type are non-existant here.


What do the kids do with the money at school?


Here is a more detailed study and the results they came up with:

Summary of Key Smarter Lunchroom Concepts:

1. Use appetizingly descriptive food labels to entice students to choose
healthier options

2. Present healthy foods in attractive displays to increase their desirability

3. Increase or decrease salience (noticeability or prominence) of healthy or
unhealthy foods:
a. Display healthy items in visible, easy to access places
b. Place unhealthy items in less prominent and less accessible places

4. Understanding that availability of choice increases consumption,
a. Increase number of choices for fruits and vegetables
b. Decrease number of choices for desserts and chips

5. Incentivize purchase of an entire healthy meal by pre-packing and offering it
in an express line that minimizes wait time

6. Systemize verbal prompts to select a healthier item from cafeteria staff

7. Provide trays, for ease of carrying healthier side items like salads and fruit

8. Understanding that size of serving utensils and dishes affects amounts of
a. Opt for smaller dishes and serving implements for desserts and other
less healthy items
b. Use larger dishes and serving implements for salads and healthy sides



I think a big part of the problem has been squeezing lunch supervision and time out of the day. In Fed Up With Lunch, Sarah Wu described small children being presented with a try full of plastic-sealed compartments, which they had difficulty opening, let alone eating in the time allotted for lunch.

As long as lunch is given only 10 or 15 minutes children don't have time to chew whole foods, let alone peel fruit. Especially when any time spent eating is subtracted from their only unstrutured time for play and socializing with their classmates.

French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon also offers some insight to the time problem. After the author's girls were taught to slow down, they returned to the US, and come home crying because they didn't have enough time to eat anything during the day.