Study Finds a Better Way to Get Kids to Eat School Lunch Veggies – "Dessert" Must Be Last

Read the paper
More on Debra Zellner
Contact Media Relations
Psychology at MSU

How do you get children to eat more vegetables? New research by psychology professor Debra Zellner of Montclair State University, and her former student, MSU alumna Jennifer L. Cobuzzi, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, holds some answers to this age-old question. The results are just released in the journal: Food Quality and Preference.

If you want to get children to eat more vegetables, you’ll get optimum results by serving them in a “coursed meal” setting and vegetables should not be served at the same time as tastier foods like a fruit, according to the research. These findings have important implications for school lunch programs across the country, where fruits and vegetables are typically served at the same time.

Zellner and Cobuzzi conducted their research through the Vetri Foundation’s unique "Eatiquette" program, which provides chef-prepared, healthy school lunches to students in a family-style setting.

The researchers observed third- and fourth-grade children at Community Partnership School in Philadelphia. Students were served the exact same meal on two different days and the menu was chickpea chicken curry with pita, kale salad, and a healthy apple-berry medley. For one meal, the apple-berry medley was served last as a “dessert” course.  For the other meal all the foods were served at the same time.

The difference in vegetable consumption was significant. "You can get these kids to eat a lot of vegetables if you do a coursed lunch," said Zellner.

More kale please
When the kale salad was served alongside the fruit, 40 percent of the students skipped it entirely or only tried a small bit. However, when the fruit was saved for last, all of the students ate at least some of the kale. The majority, 55 percent, ate the entire serving or went for seconds.

"When you put something that is really, really good compared to salad, it’s hard for the salad to complete. Kale salad is good, but not as good as apple berry medley," said Zellner.

Rethinking school lunch
The research has implications for school lunch across the United States where fruits and vegetables are typically served side-by-side, often in a cafeteria line.  Zellner said this needs rethinking. "Why not serve them [fruit and vegetables] sequentially, why serve all the choices all at once?" she said.

The fruit-last concept could be mimicked for a cafeteria-line situation, she said, where students could go through a main line first – where vegetables, grains and proteins are served – and then get the fruit or "dessert" from a separate location afterwards.

Looking at student vegetable consumption is important. According to the paper, many children get the bulk of their calories at school and obesity is a significant public health problem. Increasing vegetable consumption could be a key to battling obesity epidemic, in addition to helping to prevent diseases like cancer.