French bread pizza, tater tots, and sloppy-joes—for many, these foods are symbolic of the staples of the traditional school lunch. However, they don’t taste the same as they used to, thanks to school lunch reform efforts. The USDA has revamped the ingredients used and altered lunchtime offerings by adding healthier alternatives, and also limiting the portion sizes. While this is a delight to many parents, kids across the country have been publicly voicing their distaste over their new school lunches.
Why don’t kids like these healthy alternatives? Why are they mad that they are now asked to eat fruit instead of nachos? There are a few reasons. First, it’s important to consider a psychological phenomenon called “negative contrast,” which describes what can happen if one day you present someone with, say, a big slice of German chocolate cake, and the next, they are given a heaping helping of leafy greens. Simply because they have just been exposed to a highly palatable, or tasty, food like chocolate cake, the healthy option is perceived as less appetizing. This may be why the USDA anticipated that accepting the recent changes in school cafeterias may take time. If children are offered healthy foods for an extended period of time, they may not compare the new options to the less healthy foods they were offered before as much, and so the new options may not be rejected so quickly. For these reasons, we may see less resistance from younger, elementary-school-aged children, who are newer to the school-lunch program, than from high-school students.
The idea of negative contrast also suggests the importance of making gradual rather than drastic changes. Instead of expecting children’s taste buds to change overnight, if nutritious options are introduced more gradually, this may allow students time to adjust and prevent negative contrast from occurring. One example of a way to introduce healthy foods in a less dramatic way is to use whole grain or whole-wheat pizza dough, like one school did in Los Angeles1. This way, kids can still get the pizza they are used to while integrating new tastes into their repertoire.
But, in order for this to happen, more global changes are needed in schools. An article featured in The New York Times titled “No Appetite for Good-for-You School Lunches” pointed out that another obstacle to effectively changing foods in schools is that the vending machines in some schools are still carrying junk food. What’s the incentive for students to eat the healthy options offered in the cafeteria and to learn how to properly fuel their bodies nutritiously if they have the foods they are craving available in the hallway1? Also, having these foods available in the vending machine reinforces the effects of negative contrast and makes the healthy lunch foods even less appealing. The same thing happens if the home food environment is full of less nutritious options.
Another approach that could help kids to accept a healthy lunch may be to introduce nutrition concepts into the curriculum in a way that engages, instead of repels, students. It may not be enough to simply give kids healthier food options. Based on the reactions of kids in response to changes in the lunch program, they are viewing this more as a punishment. And in many ways, this is understandable; we are taking away something that they really like. While the alternative is rewarding in terms of long-term health benefits, kids don’t necessarily understand that.
They also might not know how to eat these healthy foods in a way that will fill them up or adequately meet their caloric needs. This is echoed by reports of children claiming that the limited portions (which are determined by cap, but capped at a healthy 850 kcal/meal) are not enough and are leaving them hungry. If children are included in the education process using interactive games, maybe even by incorporating newer forms of technology, children may be more apt to understand why these changes are being made, how and what to eat to be satisfied, and how they can benefit from these changes. Just like we educate kids about the dangers of unprotected sex, drinking alcohol, and doing drugs, we also should educate them about the dangers of an unhealthy diet. Increased educational efforts would also show that adults (i.e., teachers and administrators) are on board with these changes.
When trying to figure out the best ways to tackle large-scale health issues like heart disease and cancer, effective prevention strategies are clearly an important part of the solution. However, the resistance—by both children and some adults—when it comes to changing school lunch programs in light of the obesity epidemic may thwart important efforts to promote healthy food habits. So how, with our growing knowledge of the health, social, psychological, and economic consequences of obesity, can we effectively implement changes in nutrition, without sending kids running in the opposite direction, which is likely toward the nearest vending machine or fast-food chain?
It seems that making changes to school nutrition programs may require multi-faceted efforts that don’t just consider health and nutrition but also psychology. Though it may seem unrealistic to expect children to be enthusiastic about these changes, especially overnight, when it comes to behavioral changes in children, patience and persistence are a virtue.
Yee, V (2012). No appetite for good-for-you school lunches. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/06/nyregion/healthier-school-lunches-face-student-rejection.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist/psychologist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She has published over 50 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She recently edited the book, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (Springer/Humana Press, 2013), and she has a book on food and addiction forthcoming in 2014. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association.