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)

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  1. Jill says:

    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.

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  2. Doug says:

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

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  3. manan choksi says:


    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…

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  4. Diesel says:

    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.

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  5. Linda says:

    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.

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  6. Andy says:

    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.

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  7. l says:

    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.

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  8. James says:

    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…

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