"Stealth Health" or "Psychological Nudges"? Getting kids eating better

Oct 25, 2010 by

From the NPR website: Courtesy of Christine M. Gray, principal of Oakton Elementary Third-graders Kalli Cannistraro (from right) and Emily Park sample healthy food options at Oakton Elementary

This morning on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, two solutions were offered to get kids eating healthier at school.

The first, developed by a couple of moms, is to conceal pureed vegetables–“hidden healthies”– in kid favorites like cheese sauce on corn chips.  Obviously, this is a plan inspired by two mom-authored cookbooks published a few years ago, which arm moms with all the weaponry for getting vegetables down kids’ throats without their realizing. These  double-dealing recipes are, I supposed, probably nutritionally superior to the processed junk most schools seem to be feeding kids.

The problem with this approach, as pointed out by David Just of the Center for Behavioral Economics and Child Nutrition at Cornell University, is that kids aren’t learning to make good choices. They’ll get a little nutrition inside them at school through these sneaky dishes, but their tastes and their choices are left in the same sad shape for wherever else they eat.

Just’s almost equally sneaky plan takes us one step further toward a solution to the problem. With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, his group is studying the “psychological nudges” that can directly influence children’s food choices in the lunchroom.

For example, if we make the chocolate milk a little harder to see and reach than the white milk, more kids will choose the white milk, if only inadvertently. It works on the youngsters in the middle, who aren’t that committed to junk food, those not paying attention, whose vote can be unconsciously swung with certain strategic lighting or by making the junky choices less convenient in various ways. The idea is to create an environment that encourages good choices without confronting the bad choices.

It’s fascinating to see how our choices can be influenced by smart researchers. It’s interesting. It’s clever. It works. It’s not a bad thing. I like to be sneaky too: put out raw vegetables when kids are hungry, or serve salad as a first course, also when they’re hungry, so they’re more likely to eat it.  I try to serve healthy food attractively. I’m all for such wisely passive techniques to get kids to eat better.

I just wonder how much money is coming out of tax dollars to develop these painstaking methods to increase the good choices our kids are making, on top of all the money being spent at the same time to buy junk food to offer in school cafeterias. We’re proposing it with one hand while we try to get them not to take it with the other. It seems like a house divided. Still, the plan has some value, but I wonder if kids’ choices will be any better when they leave school, when they’ll be bombarded by the urgency of bad choices. What happens when the psychological nudges are all pushing the other direction? What will happen when they walk down the street, or watch TV, or go to the movies or a restaurant?

The trouble with this solution is that it still doesn’t go nearly far enough.  We can create an atmosphere where the “psychological nudges” are positive but that doesn’t mean we’ve instilled conviction or understanding or any kind of commitment to healthy choices or appreciation of healthy food. The only good thing is they might gradually start getting used to and enjoying healthy choices a bit more through exposure. These choices we’re encouraging are still unconscious and temporary, dependent on just the right cues. We can’t recreate these cues everywhere in the world any more than we can get rid of all the germs or allergens our children might encounter in the world. Maybe leaving the chocolate milk as a choice would be a good thing if we could manage to get all the kids to reject it, if they were learning to choose well when they are tempted, but that’s not what the psychological cues methods are attempting to do.

What we can do is so much simpler. It doesn’t require any government funding or expensive research. It doesn’t require sophisticated expertise in psychological manipulation. It just requires good sense and a commitment to teaching our children to feed themselves well for life.

First, at home and at school, we need to provide only good choices, without apology. Just as kids will encounter germs in the world,they’ll also face plenty of pressure to eat junk in life. However, we don’t want to be the ones actually providing a filthy environment or junk food with our home budget or our tax dollars. How much resources are going into getting kids not to drink the chocolate milk, when we could just eliminate it from the choices? Yes, kids want choices, but those choices we provide should be between great and great, wonderful and another kind of wonderful.

If parents want to feed their kids sugar and junk food, there’s probably not much that can be done right now, other than education and awareness. Many parents are apparently supplying their kids with plenty of junk food. I just don’t see how we can justify providing a single bite more in tax funded schools.  How can we deliberately choose to use our resources to add to the problem?

Next, we want to cultivate children’s tastes. We need to quit being sneaky and be direct. Kids are reasonable creatures and can take it. They can learn to appreciate real food. We want to introduce them to the genuine article: real vegetables in all their naked glory, as amazingly prepared and seasoned and as beautiful and fragrant as we can manage.  We want to expose them to the widest variety of real foods possible. We don’t need to invent new or sneaky recipes, rather bring out the most amazing ones that have been developed around the world and through the ages. We want kids to make friends of as many different healthy foods as can be. We need to create an atmosphere where healthy food is yummy and interesting and attractive, rather than just the more convenient option. We want them to learn to enjoy healthy foods. If they don’t, we’re giving them a fish instead of teaching them to fish.

Next, we need to educate children about the terrible things junk food does to their bodies. We need to be vivid and graphic and terrifying. Disgusting works, too. We need to show them how junk food is produced, its nasty origins and what’s wrong with it. They need to see demonstrated dramatically the havoc sugar and industrial grease wreaks on your body chemistry.  They deserve to know about the illnesses bad eating causes. We need to tell them the same stories that have convinced and inspired us to want to eat well.


Related post:

Child Obesity Task Force: Stacking the Deck against Parents and Health


Anna, I'm sorry, I just saw your reply, whoops! I would be delighted to get a picture like that. It's not as old as I usually look for, but I find it much rarer to find photos of non-western families and would love to share it! Sounds wonderful! I forgot to quote your post (blush!) but will keep it up on my browser to remind me!


Your three points are so wonderful and quoteable! And they can apply to so many of the negative things that are in our culture and in so many of our children's lives--thank you for putting them so succintly, Anna! Off to quote them to my husband! Hmmmm, maybe Facebook too.


You're right on. Public officials/government are not about to take on the real issues. It's a culture shift that needs to happen in the family first. A study just came out from the CDC saying that in 40 years, one out of 3 Americans could suffer from diabetes (instead one in 10 right now). http://news.yahoo.com/video/health-15749655/22587491#video=22694232

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

In complete agreement. I also only drink raw milk, and I think the school lunchrooms would do well to get rid of the plain milk along with the chocolate. But at least get rid of the sugary, flavored milk! I read a bit more about this research this morning. They have discovered that if they are too drastic with their changes that kids rebel, bring in their own junk or even order pizza to be delivered to school. I think probably they try to serve plain steamed broccoli, no fat everything, unflavored tofu, etc., and of course kids reject it. If they would serve healthy food that is tastier and higher quality than the processed junk, and communicate that it's an improvement instead of a crack-down, they would have better luck. Fruit cut up and presently appealingly is going to go over better than a whole hard apple or an unpeeled orange. Fragrant, beautifully prepared dishes are going to have more success than bland, unseasoned veggies. Of course I am a dreamer here.

Paul Turner
Paul Turner

I read the NPR Stealth Health story and I too wonder how much money is coming out of tax dollars to develop these painstaking methods to increase the "good choices" our kids are making. This is like mainstream medicine where we treat symptoms instead of actually dealing with causes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is just an extension of our industrial food complex and any studies funded by them are not really in our best interests. It would be naive to believe the knowledge gleamed from these kind of studies will not also be used by the food corps to better promote their junk. Instead of looking for ways of making white milk preferable over chocolate milk, they should be talking about how commercial milk from rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) injected, antibiotic and genetically modified corn eating, confined cows contains pus and blood,.toxic chemicals, PCBs, pesticides, perchlorate... Perhaps the U.S.D.A. should be educating the public about how pasteurizing and homogenizing turns milk fats into artery-clogging substances that promote heart disease and atherosclerosis. I am not against milk. I am just against most of the milk being sold today. Luckily I have a source for raw goat's milk which I ferment using kefir.


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