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Easy, Cheap Makeover of School Lunchrooms can Help Kids Eat Healthy

Update Date: Feb 22, 2013 07:30 AM EST

Fruits and vegetables are good for kids' health. But, would kids like to eat lunches that are filled with nutritious food rather than the high-fat options? According to a new study, schools can help children eat better by giving them more options to choose from rather than forcing them to eat a particular kind of food.

Although many children in the U.S. have gotten heavy in the past years, with 17 percent of kids being obese, recent reports have shown that kids now are choosing healthy foods over the greasy variety. However, the numbers need to get better to show positive changes in the health of these children.

Researchers from Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs have studied the effects of introducing easy and affordable changes in school lunchrooms and their effects on students' eating habits.

In the study, Andrew S. Hanks, PhD, and colleagues studied the effects of 'smarter lunchroom makeover' in two junior-senior high schools (grades 7-12) in western New York, according to a news release.

The lunchroom makeovers took less than 3 hours and cost about $50 to implement. In the new cafeterias, students were given the choice of opting for fruits through verbal cues from the staff (like, "Would you like to try an apple?") And, these fruits were kept near cash registers and were placed in bowls and stands that were decorated.

To check if the intervention actually worked or not, researchers compared the fruit and vegetable consumption before and after the lunchroom makeover.

Study results showed that post-makeover, students were 13 percent more likely to choose a fruit and 23 percent more likely to take a vegetable. Also, total fruit consumption increased by 18 percent and vegetable consumption rose by 25 percent.

"This not only preserves choice, but has the potential to lead children to develop lifelong habits of selecting and consuming healthier foods even when confronted with less healthy options," said Hank, according to the news release.

The study is based on the principle known as "libertarian paternalism", which promotes behavioral changes through cues while keeping the choices open.

Previous research from Cornell University has shown that the presence of fruits can make kids eat healthy, even if they haven't chosen the fruit.

The study is published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

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