Most children in the U.S. do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, some eating less than one serving of fruits and vegetables a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though there are multiple federal-level policies in place to ensure healthy options in school lunchrooms, these measures can’t guarantee that kids will choose the fruit or vegetable option, let alone eat it.
[Dr. Janani Rajbhandari-Thapa]
Now, new research from the University of Georgia suggests that fun can motivate kids to try new foods at lunchtime and ultimately eat more fruits and vegetables.
“There are many ways fun can be brought into the lunchroom,” said Dr. Janani Rajbhandari-Thapa, assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Georgia College of Public Health and lead author on the study. “The lunchroom is not always thought of as a place where fun can be incorporated.”
Food marketers have been harnessing the power of play and fun for decades. Anyone who has seen an advertisement for kids’ foods — from Happy Meals to cereal — is familiar with how these companies use kid-friendly images and toys to make their products more appealing to children.
Public health interventions are beginning to adopt these tactics by associating healthy foods with kid-friendly images and objects, said Dr. Thapa.
Dr. Thapa’s study used stickers and small, inexpensive toys to incentivize kids at two low-income elementary schools to choose and eat more servings of fruits and vegetables. Over two weeks, Dr. Thapa and her team offered a token to students who selected and ate a fruit or vegetable serving that could be redeemed for a toy.
The students ate 2.5 times more servings of fruits and vegetables when the stickers and toys were introduced than they did before the study began.
The important question was whether the students would continue to select and eat more fruits and vegetables after the stickers went away. Dr. Thapa designed her intervention so that kids would try new foods and hopefully develop a taste for them.
“After the intervention, they went back to their original lunchroom environment, and we still saw an effect,” said Dr. Thapa, suggesting that the students formed a new eating habit that would stay with them for the long term.