Involving professional chefs in the creation of school meals – to make healthy choices more palatable to kids – has been tested in a randomized trial of the intervention, with the results showing a positive effect on the amount of fruit and vegetables consumed by children.

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The study confirmed that making fruit and vegetables enjoyable to eat increases children’s consumption and was more important than the way healthy foods were presented at school.

The study, led by researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, MA, and published in JAMA Pediatrics, compared the effect of assigning a program of chef-enhanced meals at four randomly selected schools among a total of 14 taking part in the trial.

The consumption by children in these schools – in terms of selection and amounts of food – was compared with that in the remaining 10 schools providing standard meals as usual.

The chef-led improvements were then included for all schools further down the line in the trial, and a second intervention was also randomized – the use of “smart café” approaches. Only the chef interventions improved consumption of healthy choices, however.

The café changes in how the healthy choices were presented – dubbed “choice architecture” – resulted in better selections, but not the increase in the amount of healthy consumption sustained by chefs making fruit and vegetables more palatable to children.

“The results highlight the importance of focusing on the palatability of school meals,” says lead author Juliana Cohen, a research fellow in nutrition at Harvard Chan.

Dr. Cohen adds: “Partnerships with chefs can lead to substantial improvements in the quality of school meals and can be an economically feasible option for schools.”

The study found that the improved taste of school foods brought by the involvement of chefs who have a culinary degree (hired for the study by the nonprofit Project Bread) needed to be experienced by the students repeatedly for 7 months. “Therefore,” the authors conclude, “schools should not abandon healthier options if they are initially met with resistance.”

Dr. Cohen gives a similar summary:

Efforts to improve the taste of school foods through chef-enhanced meals should remain a priority because this was the only method that increased consumption.

This was observed only after students were repeatedly exposed to the new foods for 7 months.”

The two chefs charged with improving meals in the intervention schools followed a book of recipes that make “cost-effective” use of foods incorporating:

  • Whole grains
  • Fresh and frozen produce
  • Healthier polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats instead of saturated fats
  • Seasonings without added salt or sugar.

“The students were repeatedly exposed to several new recipes on a weekly basis during the 7-month intervention period.” After this time, the average vegetable consumption went up, as did fruit. Consumption was measured by composition of the recipes and the amount of plate waste after meals.

The percentage of vegetables within the meals consumed by students went up to 59.7% in the chef-enhanced program, which compares with a vegetable consumption of 28.9% in the standard school program.

For fruit, consumption as a result of the new recipes rose to 88.1% from 67.4%.

In addition to the consumption measures, choices made by the children also improved, say the researchers:

“After 3 months of exposure to the chef intervention, students selected 8% more vegetables than students at the control schools.

“After 7 months, students in the chef intervention were 20% more likely than control school students to choose a fruit, and 30% more likely to choose a vegetable.”

Drs. Mitesh Patel and Kevin Volpp write in an editorial article accompanying the study that it “expands our current understanding of how to nudge students toward healthier food choices.”

The opinion piece gives a context to the new findings, saying that the study shows “individuals behave rationally in consuming better-tasting food at higher rates.” While there is debate, they add, “there is no question that a food’s taste is an important input into a rational thought process on whether or not to eat it.”

Building healthy eating habits, write Drs. Patel and Volpp, “relies heavily on building effective feedback loops” – which was the aim of the palatability improvements brought by the chefs.

Effective feedback loops “are more likely when food elicits positive emotions.”

The second approach, to change “choice architecture” also had an effect in the study, and the editorial explains that this is related to “behavioral economics.”

“Default options change the path of least resistance and heavily influence decisions. In a self-service food line, defaults could be leveraged by changing an option’s location or its portion size.”

One of the examples of this is illustrated: “The increased selection of vegetables in the study may be a result of placing them at the front of the line, a time when individuals’ plates are empty. Contrast this to fruit options placed near the cash register, a time when plates may be full.”

Placing items near the cash register, by contrast, may interact more with impulse buying – such “items tend to be those that result in immediate gratification (e.g., candy) rather than delayed health benefits.”

The editorial also comments on the influence of marketing and information given to students, and offers the overall conclusion that tackling the “national concern of childhood obesity” is most likely to be successful if strategies and interventions reflect individuals’ rational preferences – simply, for example, by “making food taste better.”