A new study out of Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health has found that getting kids to eat healthier boils down to taste and presentation.
Researchers assigned trained chefs to a number of low-income schools in an effort to focus on the eating habits of 2,600 third and fourth-graders in schools both with and without a chef. They found that children who attended schools with a trained chef on staff ate more fruits and vegetables than those who did not.
Success was measured by "plate waste," or the food children left on their plates after finishing their meals. Schools where children ate more of the food served to them saved money, as the chefs were able to put the food they had to use more effectively.
Menu updates from the chefs included sautÃ©ed broccoli with garlic or vegetable soup rather than "hideous piles of indistinguishable greens," writes Lenny Bernstein for The Washington Post.
"What this study is showing is that this is an effective method to reduce plate waste," said researcher Juliana Cohen in an interview. Children "are going to like the foods and they're going to eat the foods."
The study is the first to look into the long-term impacts that chefs and "choice architecture" have on school lunches, finding that carefully placing healthy options and having a chef on staff seemed to increase children's consumption of fruits and vegetables, according to Cohen.
"There's this misperception that schools can't afford chefs," Cohen told WBZ NewsRadio 1030. "But chef skills go beyond just making food taste better, they also help with inventory control and more efficient use of the foods, so food costs can actually go down in the schools."
"Choice architecture" is primarily used in retail stores in an effort to bring customer's attention to certain options. "In schools what we can do is we can change the cafeteria environment to encourage kids to select more of the fruits or the vegetables," Cohen said. She suggests placing vegetables first in the line, offering fruits in a nice basket, and ensuring the white milk comes before the chocolate milk in line.
Cohen continued to stress the importance that schools not abandon their healthier menus even if children initially reject the choices presented to them.
"Children often need 10 or more exposures to a new food before they like them," she said. "This study found that students ate significantly more of the healthier foods once they had time to get used to them."