Fighting Childhood Obesity With Vegetables

Montclair State Psychology Professor Debra Zellner has been waging war against childhood obesity — and winning.  Her recent research projects have explored ways to combat obesity by getting kids to eat more vegetables. Her findings could prompt a rethinking of how school lunch programs could increase vegetable consumption.

Zellner teamed up with Philadelphia Chef Marc Vetri, whose Vetri Community Partnership runs “Eatiquette,” a groundbreaking elementary school lunch program, to determine that “coursed” meals and chef-prepared, family-style school lunches can increase students’ vegetable consumption.

In a study funded with a grant from the Barra Foundation and published in 2015, Zellner and Montclair State graduate Jennifer L. Cobuzzi showed that children will eat more vegetables if they are served before more popular fruit “desserts” in coursed meals.

Four kids in a kitchen holding all kinds of vegetables.

“When we first served the fruit at the same time as the rest of the meal, some of the children reprimanded those who went for the fruit first, saying they should take the fruit later because it was dessert,” Zellner says. “Of course, most ate the fruit first anyway. However, the idea that fruit is a dessert and should be eaten after the meal was something that some students had learned.”

The team’s second study compared vegetable consumption and liking in children ages 8 to 10, who were served a traditional lunch service with those who participated in a family-style, adult-supervised “Eatiquette” program lunch.

Children in the “Eatiquette” program showed an increased consumption of and marked liking for vegetables — in this case, cauliflower. According to Zellner, anecdotal reports indicated that the children even asked to have it served at home.

“I started this research being rather skeptical that the program would have an effect on vegetable consumption,” Zellner recalls. “I was surprised at the impact the program had and how something as simple as serving the fruit as a dessert increased vegetable consumption.”

With funding from the Monell Chemical Senses Center of the Preston and Hilda Davis Foundation, Zellner is gearing up to study the impact of the adult at the “Eatiquette” table. “We think this is one of the most important components in increasing vegetable liking and consumption,” Zellner says.