Lunchtime has been getting a lot of attention in the news lately. Children’s school lunches, whether offered by the school cafeteria or the lunch box from home, have become a meeting point for different ideas and conversations about eating and nutrition and children’s health. Lunchtime is the arena for discussions about preventing childhood obesity and other diet-related diseases, convincing children to eat more vegetables

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, and whether or not sodas or nutritionally-poor “junk” foods should be available as lunch options. Even lunches for grown-ups are under scrutiny: run a basic google search of “sad desk lunch” and you’ll dig up twitter hashtags, think-pieces about how important a lunch break is to your physical and emotional health, and a whole heap of food blogs and recipe sites offering ideas and meal plans to help fight “sad desk lunch”.

Lunch has a lot riding on it.

In New York City, almost 48% of school-aged children are eligible for a free or reduced-cost lunch at their school cafeteria (that’s over 1.2 million children in New York City alone). This means that school cafeterias are very important sites not only for providing children their mid-day meals, but also giving them the time and the place to make informed decisions about their health and their palates. The pressure is on school lunches to help reduce childhood weight and diet-related diseases by providing more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and reducing the amount of salty, fatty, or fried foods available to children. The solutions schools have come up with are a mixed bag of the good, the bad, and the odd.

One solution was to use some tried and true advertising techniques. Instead of flashy ads promoting fast food or the latest sugary cereal, researchers promoted vegetables through banners and posters placed around schools. The result was dramatic: the more veggie promotional materials children saw, the more likely they were to eat their vegetables come lunchtime. Children ate anywhere from 90.% to 239.2% more vegetables after seeing the veggie advertising. But is the advertising enough? Would these children continue eating fruits and vegetables if the posters and banners came down? This study didn’t answer those questions, but the role of food advertising in this case makes a strong argument for how to boost children’s veggie habits. Making fruits and vegetables physically available in the lunchroom is very important, but now we know that making them visually available is a big help too!

Another idea for promoting more nutritious lunches came about as a result of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which requires school lunches to be lower in fat, calories, and sodium, while still providing protein, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. The problem is that the guidelines allow food options like whole grain doughnuts and a “reformulated” Philly cheesesteak, but ban items like jasmine rice or spaghetti and meatballs. The result is that children turn up their noses at the new menu options, because the new regulations have changed menu items and how they are formulated, but not children’s taste expectations or experiences of these foods. A whole grain doughnut may technically meet the new guidelines, but a doughnut is still a doughnut. Teaching children to choose the whole grain version of a dessert item does not expand their knowledge about fruits and vegetables, and it does not help them to make the choice to reach for an apple or banana when they want a sweet bite. Changing children’s preferences for fruits and vegetables means changing their taste expectations through tasting and exploring new foods and flavors.

One of the oddest ideas proposed to help kids pick out healthier food options came from research performed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The study discusses ideas similar the veggie banners and posters in the paragraph above, but with an added twist: bribe children with toys and stickers to make them feel as excited about fruits and vegetables as fast food kids meals do. Researchers found that whenever vegetable, fruit, or low-fat dairy options in the cafeteria were accompanied by colorful stickers and small toys, children’s choices for these options increased by 300%. Lunchtime sales of fruits jumped 20% and vegetable sales increased by 62% when toys and stickers and novelty items were included in the sale. Including toys in children’s meals is a trick researchers picked up from fast food restaurants, which rely heavily on marketing strategies to appeal to young eaters. The question remains whether or not these children develop a lasting taste-preference for the fruits and vegetables they’re eating, or if the stickers are the main appeal. Are more children reaching for bananas and broccoli because they like the taste, or because they like the prize?

So with all the attention focused on providing children more opportunities to eat fruits and vegetables, there still is not enough work being done on changing taste expectations or attitudes towards these foods.

Children in Spoons Across America's programs explore taste and texture hands-on while making a delicious caprese salad.

Children in Spoons Across America’s programs explore taste and texture hands-on while making a delicious Caprese salad.

Spoons Across America has another idea. We  provide comprehensive and fun-filled food literacy programs, where children find the joy in nutritious food and explore the range of tastes and textures in foods like fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Giving children the chance to make eating choices and explore taste possibilities in a stress-free environment nurtures an independence in choosing foods and negotiating their taste preferences away from the sway of food advertising. Tactics like stickers and toys and guidelines that teach children that whole grain doughnuts are “healthier” than a cup of jasmine rice do not provide the space for these young eaters to explore their taste experiences and decision-making abilities. Food education not only gives children the tools to make choices for healthy and tasty foods

, but also fosters the ability to apply those decision-making skills to other areas of their life. Being able to negotiate choices in the midst of food advertising and the lure of toys and prizes helps make healthy habits of childhood the permanent healthy eating habits of adulthood.

Eating is something everyone has to do, several times a day. Every meal is an opportunity to nourish our bodies with healthful and nutritious foods, nourish our minds with choices between different food options, and nourish our souls (because a square of dark chocolate can be the perfect end to a long day). Lunch is a daily opportunity to explore our tastes and preferences; it is a chance to reinforce our eating habits as we continue to work towards more and more healthful and joyful choices.

Click here for 9 ways to have a more seasonal lunch!

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