Could lunchroom design drive better nutrition? Brian Wansink, Co-Director of the Cornell Center of Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs and author of "Mindless Eating", presented proof that it can, and shared some tried and true, low-cost healthy-eating-promoting ideas for school lunchrooms at the School Nutrition Association's New York conference recently. Here are a few of the environmental changes he suggested, all of which have been shown to affect eating habits and preferences:
• Decreasing the size of bowls from 18 ounces to 14 ounces reduced the size of the average cereal serving at breakfast by 24 percent.
• Creating a speedy "healthy express" checkout line for students not buying calorie-dense foods like desserts and chips, doubled the sales of healthy sandwiches.
• Moving the chocolate milk behind the plain milk led students to buy more plain milk.
• Keeping ice cream in a freezer with a closed opaque top significantly reduced the amount of ice cream taken.
• When cafeteria workers asked each child, "Do you want a salad?" salad sales increased by a third.
It’s great to see research going onto school cafeteria behavioral psychology and I loved reading about these win-win techniques. They make sense, and if they sound familiar it’s because they’re similar to — or the exact opposite of — methods used to better sell food wherever food is sold.
It’s about time lunch-rooms started applying the methods the food and beverage service and retail industries have been studying and honing for decades. Industry has already discovered what makes us tick and what makes us buy — they have perfected the art of making stuff we had no idea we needed become the object of desire. Why not open their training books and steal some good ideas to try-out at school? Why not ask for their help?
Supermarket layout lessons
Whether you’re aware of it or not, the supermarket is laid out in a way that moves you where the owners want you to go. For starters, the necessities aren’t in any kind of sensible order, forcing shoppers to cover the entire floor for bread and milk. The necessities will then be occasionally shuffled around to prevent you from getting into too fast a rhythm while shopping.
It’s been established that most customers tend to look right when entering a supermarket — I have no idea why. That’s why special offers and promotions will be at your immediate right when you go beyond the supermarket’s wide open doors.
Shelf placement is very calculated. Since most shoppers are right handed placement on the right makes for better sales. Eye level products sell better, that’s why kid oriented food is lower on the shelf, and prime-time money making products are placed on shelves that are at adult shoppers' eye level.
Displays near checkouts and end-caps grab a lot of attention (while you’re waiting to pay) and can drive impulse shopping.
A well designed supermarket is inviting. It has nice signs outside and a welcoming, attractive appearance.
Food smells make you hungry. That’s why supermarkets bake bread, producing perhaps the most enticing food-smell of all.
School cafeteria ideas:
Why not try using the bag of tricks supermarkets established to lead kids towards the fruits and veggies? Why not bake whole wheat bread in the school cafeteria (the dough can be brought in, ready, as done in most supermarkets). “Checkout displays” in most school cafeterias include cookies and chips, a-la-carte items sold separate from the school lunch program (I suspect this placement isn’t by chance). Replace these with attractive fruit in an attractive basket, as the Cornell study suggests, and move the chips to a low bin under the salad bar.
Buying Incentives lessons
Discounts drive sales. Coupons drive sales. So do loyalty programs.
School cafeteria ideas:
Lots to think about here: Would a buy one get one free work for oranges? Should we be offering the 10th salad free? Homework-pass prized sweepstakes for the “I tried something new” club participants?
Lessons from restaurants
Big-time restaurant menus are carefully crafted by experts to get results. Menus are not written, they're engineered. The menu is designed to lead customers, subconsciously, to select the items that the restaurant wants them to go for. The name of the dish, the use of adjectives, the font and design, the placement on the page or menu board, the entrée’s paired sides— all these things matter. Descriptions matter too.
As we all know already, supersizing works. The size of the plate and of the portion on it affect consumption both ways.
School cafeteria ideas:
Give healthy dishes appetizing names — golden butternut squash puree sounds better than squash puree, and grilled tofu with summer green beans sounds so much more delicious than tofu and beans — studies show that a good name can lead to more trial and a more positive experience. Give the dish character; use some vivid adjectives. Give large portions of the veggie side, and small portions of the calorie dense entrée. Have at hand small dessert plates. Give artistic kids a chance to make the menu board entertaining and appetizing while promoting the healthy options.
I’m sure there are many more valuable ideas already in use by industry. Do you think the bright minds advising big-food and fast-food companies would mind sharing their expertise? After all the major food companies promised Michelle Obama and the Let’s Move campaign to support the effort to fight obesity as best they can, haven’t they? Just a suggestion.
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