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Getting Kids to Eat Their Vegetables

By Caitlin Friess

SETH vegetables

Professor Anastasia Snelling knows that, given a choice, elementary school students in D.C. prefer to take their broccoli Asian-style, with a dressing of soy sauce, ginger, and garlic. She learned this piece of information through a USDA-funded study of the consumption of three vegetables throughout the year in order to implement a specific behavioral economic strategy. This test—in this case, a taste test—includes the preparation of the target vegetable in three different ways, where students have the opportunity to select which option they like the most. The next time that vegetable is offered in the cafeteria, the winning preparation will be served.

Local- and national-level healthy eating policies usually include an increased presentation of fresh fruits and vegetables to students, as well as whole grains, beans, and lentils. “That makes all of us feel good, that students are at least having these foods offered to them,” she says. “But what has become very apparent is that offering a vegetable doesn't necessarily mean a student will consume it.”

Snelling and a group of graduate students from the health promotion management program are conducting these test in eight schools—four in D.C. and four in Arlington—using broccoli, black beans, and spinach. All of the schools have greater than 50 percent of the students eligible for free or reduced lunch.

The difference in how D.C. and Arlington conduct their cafeterias has become key to the study. D.C. has a “serve” model in place, whereas Arlington has an “offer” model. This means that students in Arlington get to choose what goes on their plates while students in D.C. just have the food given to them.

After collecting data for three months, it has become clear that a different behavioral economic strategy may be necessary in Arlington. “Every student has the same plate in D.C.” Snelling says. “It all looks the same: a meat or protein entree, a starch, vegetables, and fruits. Arlington students can choose the black bean corn salsa in the taste test, but end up choosing the fruit in the cafeteria. What we have observed with the offer versus serve food service model is that there is less waste with the offer model, because if a student doesn't want it, it doesn't end up on their plate and potentially in the trash.”

In previous studies under the offer model, Snelling implemented what she calls an “appetizer” strategy, where students can get a bite of the vegetable being served for lunch while they are in line, and if they like it, the experience is at the forefront of their thoughts, making them more likely to choose and eat the vegetable. “It's a challenge, but it's a good illumination of what's going on in the natural environment,” Snelling says. “Basically, the reason we haven't been too successful in Arlington has come down to too many food choices.”

For their current research, broccoli is the only vegetable to have been through the whole experimental cycle, which includes a baseline test, the taste test, and two follow-ups in each school. “We're using an iPhone application developed by Brigham Young University called the V-Project,” graduate student Devin Ellsworth says. “The two graduate students per school will be there for all lunch periods, and they're recording the gender of the child, the lunch period, and how much of the vegetable student consumed.”

If the child did not eat any of the vegetable, it is recorded as a zero. If they tried even a little of it, the students put it in as 50 percent, and if they finished all of the vegetable it is recorded as 100 percent. The totals for each school give the researchers a percentage of how many children tried the vegetable versus ate it all or didn't touch it. “We get great feedback from kids; they're really engaged in the process,” Ellsworth says. “It's funny how deliberative they can be, how they taste it and sit there and think really hard about it before they move on.”

The group has seen overall positive results in D.C., with broccoli consumption going up to 65 percent from 35 percent. In Arlington, they have seen more mixed results. “We believe we are nudging two behaviors in Arlington because of its offer model,” Snelling says. “We have to nudge them to take the vegetable and then we have to nudge them to eat it.”

Snelling sees her research as an important part of the push for healthy eating. “We're really addressing the issue of health disparities very early in a child’s life, trying to get children exposed to good vegetable choices,” she says. “It's only one part of the health disparity issue, but it is one way to reach the children who need these services the most.”