Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at School

What happens if you give one group of kids a plate of cookies and the other group the same number of cookies, but cut in half, and tell both groups they can eat as many as they want? Researchers reported that decreasing cookie size led to 25% fewer cookie calories eaten.

The goal of that study was to help counter obesity-promoting eating behaviors facilitated by the availability of large portions of junk food. The findings suggest that reducing the size of cookies (without altering the total amount of food) decreases children’s short-term caloric intake, a ”dietary strategy” for guardians to discreetly decrease unhealthy behaviors. But they were using sugar wafers–do you know what’s in those things? Partially hydrogenated oil (trans fats). What’s so bad about trans fats? See Trans Fat in Meat and Dairy, Trans Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol: Tolerable Upper Intake of Zero, and Breast Cancer Survival and Trans Fat. No one should be eating those cookies. In fact, I can think of another “dietary strategy” to decrease kid’s intakeódon’t give them any.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. Even in the ‘granola crunchy’ San Francisco Bay Area, a proposed ban on junk food suggested by parents and school administrators sent a faction of teachers into an apoplectic fit. In Texas, there was so much parental outrage that they got lawmakers to pass a Safe Cupcake Amendment. The amendment, known as Lauren’s Law, ensures that parents and grandparents of schoolchildren celebrating a birthday can bring whatever the heck they want to school.

Fine. What if you just offered fruit in addition to the cupcakes at classroom celebrations? To observe student response to the addition of fresh fruit, bowls of fresh, cut-up fruit provided by the researchers were added to the party food brought by the parents at two of four kindergarten or preschool celebrations. No special effort was made to encourage students to choose the fruit: they just put it out there. Would kids actually eat fruit when there was birthday cake, ice cream, and cheese puffs taking up nearly a whopping third of their daily caloric intake? Yes! On average each kid ate a full fruit serving. Take that, cheesy puffs!

There are entire curricula available now for schools, such as “Veggiecation,” where for a whole year classrooms feature a new “veggie of the month,” sprinkled with nutrition mantras like ”Fiber equals a happy tummy.” And they work! “The active engagement of students in tasting and rating vegetable dishes seemed to have contributed to higher consumption of featured vegetables.”

One school was able in some cases to double vegetable consumption just by giving them attractive names. Elementary students ate twice the number of carrots if they were called “X-ray Vision Carrots,” compared to when they were just “carrots” or generically named “Food of the Day.”

How about Power Punch Broccoli, Silly Dilly Green Beans, or Tiny Tasty Tree Tops? Selection of broccoli increased by 109.4%, and green beans by 177%. Conclusion: “these studies demonstrate that using an attractive name to describe a healthy food in a cafeteria is robustly effective, persistent, and scalable with little or no money or experience.” These names were not carefully crafted, discussed in focus groups, and then pre-tested. They just thought them up out of thin air. And kids were suckered into eating healthier for months by putting out silly little signs. In this school, vegetable intake was up nearly 100%, while in the control school without signs, vegetable consumption started low and actually got worse. So why isn’t every single school in the country doing this right now?! Bring it up at your next PTA meeting.

And if you want to get really bold, you can join the nutritious school lunch revolution led by pioneering organizations like the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food (check out their website at

Whenever I find myself frustrated by half measures, I am forced to remind myself just how SAD the Standard American Diet is. See Nations Diet in Crisis for a reality check. One of the problems is that parents may not even realize there is a problem (Mothers Overestimate Dietary Quality).

This is the first of a 3-part video series on practical tips for dietary improvement. Next we’ll cover Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at Home, and then Tricks to Get Adults to Eat Healthier.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations†Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

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Meta Reid
Meta Reid3 years ago

One suggestion from the book "American Wasteland" (by Bloom, J.) is having the kids play first and then eat lunch. Usually school do lunch followed by recess. When they play first, they eat all or most of their lunch, because they're hungry. Yes, the children eat more of their lunch than if they'd eaten first but there is no restless hungry children during the afternoon classes. There is also the benefit of weight reduction. There are other good suggestions in the book too.

Spencer Young
Spencer Y4 years ago

No tricks for treats, education makes it complete

Christine Stewart
Christine S4 years ago

Anything to get the kids to at least TRY the healthy offerings is a good idea!

Aaron Bouchard
Aaron Bouchard4 years ago

thank you

Robert O.
Robert O4 years ago

Thanks Dr. Greger.

Jane Ketterman
Jane Ketterman4 years ago

I started my kids out with good junk food was in our house, then when they got into school yes there was junk everywhere and they ate some of it but they also gravitated to the salads and fruits because that is what they were used to and tasted good to them. Their friends looked at them like they were aliens but they didn't care lol...some of them even picked up an apple themselves:-) Yeah! My guys still prefer to eat a healthy lifestyle for the most part.

Marija Mohoric
Marija M4 years ago

tks for sharing

Danuta Watola
Danuta W4 years ago

thanks for sharing