Scientists from T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University analyzed the eating habits of more than 2,600 school students third- through eighth-grade in two low-income urban school districts. Most of the children were Hispanic, with an average age of 11 ½. Schools received trained chefs that were assigned randomly to spice up fruits, vegetable, and entrees by introducing low-fat, low-salt recipes. Some of the schools experimented with how food was presented to the children in the food line.
Scientists weighted the amount of food the kids took and the “plate waste” – the food left over when they were finished eating. Monitors collected the waste food before children were about to through it in the trash.
When kids saw the sautéed broccoli in garlic and olive oil or vegetable soup instead of the traditional but unpleasant heap of undistinguishable greens, they displayed a tendency to eat more of the healthful food, according to Juliana Cohen, research associate in the nutrition department.
“What this study is showing is that this is an effective method to reduce plate waste,” she said in an interview. Children “are going to like the foods and they’re going to eat the foods.”
This is an important finding because 30 million children receive meals at school each day and many of them rely on those meals for as much as half their calories. When those calories come in the form of junk food, they contribute to the current condition of U.S. school-aged children, nearly a third of them are overweight or obese, the study added.
In the study, researchers found that consumption of entrees didn’t change much, but that didn’t bother them, because chefs were substituting low fat, low salt and whole grain meals for less healthful alternatives. After three months, the children didn’t change their selection of fruits and vegetables prepared by chefs very much, but after seven months they did. They also chose more fruit in schools where it was presented prominently. When both approaches were tried, fruit and vegetable consumption improved.
The study was published in journal JAMA Pediatrics.