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University of Minnesota

Digging vegetables

March 19, 2012

Children holding vegetables.

Pictures of vegetables taped into school lunch tray compartments may encourage children to take the real vegetables, a U of M study suggests.

A study hints at a potential way to get more vegetables into kids

By Deane Morrison

Young children aren't famous for filling up on vegetables.

But last year University of Minnesota researchers taped pictures of carrots and green beans in the compartments of elementary kids' lunch trays, on a day when the school was serving—you guessed it—carrots and green beans.

That day, 15 percent of the K-5 crowd took green beans and 37 percent took carrots, up from 6 and 12 percent, respectively, on a day three months earlier when the same meal was served and no pictures were attached to the trays.

But did the kids like their vegetables?

The green beans seemed to go over well. Kids who took them consumed the same amount (19 grams per student) as on the comparison day with no pictures. Kids who chose carrots ate only slightly less (27 grams vs. 31 grams per student) than on the comparison day. Even so, because more children took carrots, the overall consumption for all children was higher.

"We wanted to know whether the pictures led the students to take the vegetables, not necessarily eat them," says Zata Vickers, a food science professor and co-author of the study.  "These data show that once the students had placed the vegetable on their lunch tray, they ate the same amount—or almost the same amount, in the case of carrots—as they did without the pictures."

However, both the number of children who took the vegetables and the amounts consumed fell short of government recommendations. Also, the study covered only two days at one elementary school—in the Twin Cities suburb of Richfield—and so "we don't know if this effect would disappear if we did it on another day or with, say, broccoli," says Vickers.

No hard sells

The researchers are now looking for similar strategies to prompt children to eat vegetables using what's called behavioral economics, according to Vickers. In employing such strategies, researchers change an environment in small, often imperceptible ways. In response, people may change their behavior unconsciously.

"These kinds of interventions aren't even a soft sell—they're called nudges," she says.

A report on the study appeared online in February in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The experiment was the brainchild of first author Marla Reicks, a professor of nutrition at the University.

Tags: College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Related Links

College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Department of Food Science and Nutrition

Marla Reicks

Zata Vickers