Whether we are doing the week’s food shopping in the grocery store or standing in line at the fast food counter, studies have shown that our stomachs speak louder than our brains when making food choices: the sight and aroma of food make us choose more impulsively, and, less healthfully, when we are hungry. Researchers at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (B.E.N. Center) wondered whether hungry kids in the school lunch-line make similar, impulsive — and ultimately, unhealthy — decisions about what food they buy. By changing the “decision environment” and allowing some students to pre-order their lunch in the morning (with stomachs full from breakfast and away from the sights and smells in the cafeteria), making better decisions was possible:
A significant number of healthier choices were made when students pre-ordered lunch. When preordering was available, 29.4% of students ordered the healthier lunch entrée compared to 15.3% when no preordering took place. When ordering in the lunch line, hunger mixed with the aromas and sight of unhealthy foods won out in spontaneous food decisions: healthy entrée selection was reduced by 48% and less healthy entrée choices increased by 21%.
For some reason, Americans got it into their heads a long time ago that we needed to provide schoolchildren with a “hot” lunch at school. As a result, they are served hot meals that are highly processed and densely caloric, very little of it looking like “real” food. We also got it in our heads that kids needed to be offered dessert with lunch, and that simply offering milk or water as a beverage choice was insufficient without also offering calorically dense juices and nutritionally empty soft drinks.
The food doesn’t need to be hot! The food does need to be nutritionally complete and healthy. Our kids don’t need that many choices, either! The choice they should be making is whether to pack their lunches from home or buy at school. The choices the schools should be offering is an apple for dessert, or nothing; water or milk to drink, or nothing.
Pre-ordering food in the morning (or even better, online from home the night before, where parents can participate in the decision-making) is a great idea. Unless we’re asking kids to make the same decisions about the same old same old.