Dec. 17, 2009

Getting kids to eat veggies: Try 'X-ray vision carrots'

A little choice and some new names can go a long way in getting children to eat their fruits and vegetables, report Cornell researchers.

When preschoolers were offered so-called "X-ray vision carrots," they ate 62 percent more of the vegetable than when the vegetable was referred to as just plain old carrots, and the increased consumption of carrots persisted even the next day, report marketing professor Brian Wansink and behavioral economist David Just, both in Cornell's Department of Applied Economics and Management.

Writing in a recent issue of Choices (published by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association), the two professors suggest that school lunch programs make better use of behavioral economics -- the combination of models from psychology and economics to help better understand how biases in perception, memory or thought processes may influence consumption decisions.

For example, instead of coercing children to eat healthier foods by substituting fruit for cookies during snack time, "children can be presented healthy and unhealthy items and be led to willingly choose the good," write the researchers. In school, cafeteria workers can prompt children to choose a piece of fruit, or display healthier foods at eye level or more prominently. Even such factors as noise, crowding and long cafeteria lines may prompt children to choose more "grab and go" foods instead of healthier options, say the researchers.

"The object of using behavioral economics in school lunch rooms is to guide choices in a way that is subtle enough that children are unaware of the mechanism," write the authors.

Their ideas are promoted on a new Web site,

In their recent Choices article, the researchers offer such tips for school cafeterias as:

In addition, the researchers are collaborating with Valerie Reyna, professor of human development, on a two-year, $30,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service on how to "de-stigmatize fruits and vegetables in school cafeterias" -- that is, changing impressions of foods. The grant will investigate whether changing the way fruits and vegetables are named in school cafeterias increases how the foods are purchased and perceived. Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think," also recently received a two-year, $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health through the federal stimulus package to raise the health bar in stores and homes.