A new study shows that children who electronically pre-order their lunch are more likely to make healthier meal choices than students who pick and choose as they go through the cafeteria line.
For the study, which was published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, researchers from Cornell University looked at the choices made by 272 students from two schools in New York. The four-week study focused on students in grades 1 through 5. When the students pre-ordered their lunches, 29% were more likely to pick a healthier main course, compared to 15% when there was no pre-order option.
Researchers say that pre-ordering lunch can help prevent distractions like sights and smells from influencing kids’ decisions and leading them to make unhealthy meal choices.
Jessica Donze Black, project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, says the overall food environment makes a big difference in the choices students make.
“It is not just what is in the meals, but what’s in the rest of the school food environment,” she says. “What’s in the vending machine, what’s in the school’s store. It’s important all those foods are also healthy.”
In January 2012 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revised school meal guidelines and required more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and stricter calorie limits.
The new guidelines were met with mixed reviews. Some children complained that the calorie limits didn’t fill them up. In response, the USDA allowed the schools more freedom in determining meat and grain servings. But there’s still debate about the restrictions.
Black says some of the most successful changes in lunchroom eating habits have been in schools that include students in the menu decision-making process. “Giving children an opportunity to taste-test allows them to provide feedback and an opportunity to show their preferences,” she says.
On April 30, Public School 244 in Queens, New York, became one of the first schools in the nation to adopt an all-vegetarian menu. It has been serving items like tofu wraps and vegetarian chili since going all-veggie earlier this year.
P.S. 244 has just over 400 students in pre-kindergarten through third grade. The school, which wanted to offer the children healthy food options, started serving a vegetarian lunch three times a week. Later in the year, they increased it to four times a week before making the switch to an all-vegetarian menu every day.
"We discovered early on that our kids were gravitating toward our vegetarian offerings,” principal Robert Groff said. “And we kept expanding the program to meet the demand.”
As researchers continue to pinpoint the most successful strategies for healthier students—and schools continue to introduce them—there’s hope that children’s weight and energy will reach healthy levels now and in the future.