Pre-Ordering School Lunches Steer Kids To Healthier Meal Choices

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Editor’s Note: The study upon which this story is based has been retracted by JAMA Pediatrics, the journal in which it was published. JAMA has also retracted several other studies by the same researcher. “Cornell University has notified JAMA that based on its investigation they are unable to provide assurances regarding the scientific validity of the six studies,” JAMA said in a statement. “Therefore, the six articles reporting the results of these studies … are hereby retracted.”

Along the lines of advice to avoid grocery shopping when you’re hungry, new research concludes that children who electronically pre-order their lunch are more likely to make healthier meal choices than students who pick and choose as they make their way through the cafeteria line.

The four-week study looked at the choices made by 272 students in grades 1 to 5 in two schools in upstate New York. When the students pre-ordered their lunches, 29% were more likely to pick a healthier entrée compared to 15% when the option to pre-order was unavailable. When students chose their entrée in the lunch line, they were 48% less likely to make a healthy choice and 21% more likely to chose a less healthy entrée.

(MORE: Stricter School Lunch Standards Lead To Lighter Kids)

In the study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, researchers from Cornell University suggest that preordering lunch entrées could prevent distractions like sights and smells that could prompt kids to make hasty and potentially unhealthy choices when picking their meals.

Anti-obesity advocates and public health experts continually look for ways to measurably change the food environments for children in schools. In January 2012 the U.S. Department of Agriculture revised school meal guidelines and required more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and stricter calorie limits.

The stricter guidelines were met with mixed reviews, with some children complaining the calorie limits didn’t fill them up. In response, the USDA allowed the schools more flexibility in meat and grain servings. But there’s still debate about the restrictions.

As school lunch nutritional standards continue evolving, research is showing that having healthier options in school cafeterias could effectively curb weight gain and cravings for unhealthy treats.

(MORE: More Food for Hungry Students: USDA Tweaks School Meals)

“I think that some of the great things that happened with updating the school meal standards was that there were more fruits and vegetables,” says Jessica Donze Black, project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project. Black is unaffiliated with the study. “We all recognize that kids don’t get enough fruits and vegetables and certainly giving them more is a good thing. When we look at the schools that have been successful with that, where the kids are really eating more fruits and vegetables, there are some strategies that are really working.”

Some schools have already seen success, and Black says some of the most successful and sustainable changes in lunchroom fare and eating habits have been among schools involving students in the menu decision-making process. “Giving children an opportunity to taste-test allows them to provide feedback and an opportunity to show their preferences,” says Black.

It helps also if schools are rolling the lunch room changes out over time; getting used to healthier options doesn’t happen overnight. “A lot of those schools who have done well with integrating the foods will say they started the process a couple of years ago,” says Black.

(MORE: Cutting Out Soda Curbs Children’s Weight Gain, Studies Show)

While pre-ordering meals may be a strategy for steering kids toward healthier choices, Black says that the overall food environment makes a greater difference in whether kids choose healthy food options. “It is not just what is in the meals, but what’s in the rest of the school food environment. What’s in the a la carte line, what’s in the vending machine, what’s in the school’s store. It’s important all those foods are also healthy so we are not making fruits and vegetables compete with cookies and cakes when it comes to students’ tastes,” she says.

The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project’s recent health impact assessment (HIA) showed that revising national nutrition standards for snacks and drinks sold in schools not only helps students maintain a good weight but also benefits school budgets by increasing revenue for school food services. Without unhealthy snacks, the research found students are more likely to buy school meals.

“This is also better for school budgets because they get reimbursements from the federal governments for all those meals. It’s a win-win,” says Black.

As researchers continue to pinpoint the most successful strategies for healthier students — and schools continue to implement them — there’s hope that that now and in the future children’s weight and energy will reach healthy levels.