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June 16, 2014

Serving up better school lunches

While some on Capitol Hill are debating healthy school lunches, four schools in the District of Columbia and four in Arlington, Virginia are conducting taste-test competitions and engaging youth in food preparation. The results show that students eat more vegetables when they are involved in deciding how foods are prepared and when vegetables are placed on their lunch trays.

While some on Capitol Hill are debating healthy school lunches, four schools in the District of Columbia and four in Arlington, Virginia are conducting taste-test competitions and engaging youth in food preparation. The results show that students eat more vegetables when they are involved in deciding how foods are prepared and when vegetables are placed on their lunch trays.

At the Arlington schools, when given a choice in the lunch line, about 1 in 10 students selected broccoli, and fewer actually ate it. In the District of Columbia schools, students were served a similar lunch, including broccoli. Consumption of broccoli in these schools was higher, about 34 percent. Presenting the food to the child without choice led to increased consumption.

Most school cafeterias follow the Arlington model, offering foods in the lunch line, because of a policy that predates the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. But given the incidence of childhood obesity, this approach must be questioned. Studies affirm that children must have repeated exposure to vegetables to develop taste preferences. Children need help from parents and caregivers to motivate them in this development, and the same should be happening with school lunches.

Expanding on the results of the taste-test studies, we then set out to examine whether switching from offering a vegetable to serving it would have any effect. The results suggest that simply serving the spinach on every tray resulted in 9 percent more students eating it. The cafeteria no longer had to nudge the students to make the healthy choice. This choice was made for them, and students ate more spinach.

At one school, students also had a hand in determining how the spinach was prepared; they chose spinach salad. When the salad was then served to students, we saw a 17 percent jump in spinach consumption, suggesting that multiple strategies may work best.

As every parent knows, getting children to eat their vegetables can be no easy task. Let’s keep serving healthy food. Children’s health starts with good nutrition, and researchers are committed to working with schools to identify strategies that can improve students’ consumption of healthy meals.

Anastasia Snelling is a registered dietitian and a professor at American University.

Special to The Washington Post

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