Free Resource Sheets to Teach Healthy Eating Habits


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Feng Shui for Food

The debate over school lunch is focused on changing the quality of food being served. But the truth is, most school cafeterias serve (at least some) healthy food.  If only the kids would buy it. 

It’s kind of like our kitchens: there’s plenty of broccoli in the fridge but that’s not what gets eaten.  Our kids clamor for cupcakes, not for carrots.

What if the solution isn’t changing the quality of food that’s being served? What if the solution is changing the way the food is offered?

I’m not talking about smiley face sammies here — though food cut into cute shapes is kind of fun, and giving my daughter parmesan snow to sprinkle on her broccoli trees always worked like a charm with her!

I’m talking about something a little more sophisticated — Feng Shui for food!

In an editorial in the New York Times last week, Brian Wansink and his colleagues outlined 12 changes cafeterias can make to draw kids towards healthy choices and away from, well, you know…the crap. 

And not a single change has anything to do with the actual food.  Instead, the strategy focuses on making nutritious foods: a) more visible, and b) the easier option; while at the same time making sweets and treats c) less visible, and d) the more difficult option.

Read the article Lunch Line Redesign

(If you’re not familiar with Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, he’s brilliant.  Read Mind Over Matter and find out how he once made people think strawberry yogurt was chocolate yogurt.)

You should consider making the same environmental changes in your home cafeteria.

Our kids’ eating problem doesn’t start in schools.  A recent survey shows:

  • 1/3 of toddlers and 50% of preschoolers eat fast food at least once a week.
  • 25% of older infants, toddlers and preschoolers do not eat a single serving of fruit on a given day and 30% do not eat a single serving of vegetables.
  • French fries are the most popular vegetable among toddlers and preschoolers.

Our toddlers really are French Fry-eating, soda-swilling little teens in training.  Read more about this survey

Here are the researchers' 12 changes for redesigning school cafeterias to encourage healthier eating.

And how you can mimic these strategies in your home.

1. “Placing nutritious foods like broccoli at the beginning of the lunch line rather than in the middle, increased the amount students purchased by 10 percent to 15 percent.”

Serve vegetables (or salad) before a meal when your kids are hungry and wanting to snack. Also consider the beginning of a meal when there are no competing foods.

2. “Students given a choice between carrots and celery were much more likely to eat their vegetables than students forced to take only carrots.”

If you don't feel like cooking multiple veggies every day, try keeping a selection of raw or cooked vegetables in serving bowls in the refrigerator.  Put these on the table during meals and ask your children to help themselves from at least two of the bowls.  Change what you put in the bowls from week to week.

3. “Putting apples and oranges in a fruit bowl, rather than a stainless steel pan, more than doubled fruit sales.”

Keep fruit in a fruit bowl in the refrigerator instead of in the fruit bin.  During snack time put the fruit bowl on the kitchen counter or table.  Consider putting out a platter of veggies too.

4. “Pulling the salad bar away from the wall and putting it in front of the checkout register nearly tripled sales of salads.”

Arrange your refrigerator and cabinets so the food you’re trying to “sell” is front-and-center.

5. “When cafeteria workers asked each child, “Do you want a salad?” salad sales increased by a third.”

Consistently “sell” the foods you’ve put front-and-center.  But don't use a hard sell. (Notice that the cafeteria workers aren’t withholding dessert from kids who won’t eat salad. Neither should you.) Ask your children each day if they want a serving of salad, of vegetables, of any of the food you hope they’ll eat. Over time they will.

6. “Moving the chocolate milk behind the plain milk led students to buy more plain milk.”

Get down to your kids’ level and see what they see. Then make sure the milk and water are at eye level. This may mean keeping a reachable jug of water in the refrigerator, and moving other beverages to the back of a higher shelf.

7. “Giving healthy food choices more descriptive names — for example, “creamy corn” rather than “corn” — increased their sales by 27 percent.”

Channel your inner writer and get creative, colorful (or even gross). The more descriptive you are the better your sales will be.

8. “Keeping ice cream in a freezer with a closed opaque top significantly reduced ice cream sales.”

Move sweets and treats to the least visible spot in the kitchen. Consider also putting them inside opaque plastic containers.

9. “Decreasing the size of bowls from 18 ounces to 14 ounces reduced the size of the average cereal serving at breakfast by 24 percent.”

Use smaller plates and bowls to serve foods you want your children to consume less of and use larger plates and bowls for foods you want your kids to eat in greater quantities.

10. “Creating a speedy “healthy express” checkout line for students who were not buying desserts and chips doubled the sales of healthy sandwiches.”

Learn to dawdle. Be quick with healthy food and slow with sweets and treats.  (One way to ensure you’ll be slow is if you have to drive to the supermarket to buy whatever it is your kids are requesting because you don’t keep it around!)

11. “A “cash for cookies” policy — that is, forbidding the use of lunch tickets for desserts — led students to buy 71 percent more fruit and 55 percent fewer desserts.”

Consider providing a few sweets and treats and then charging your kids for extras, either with real money, TV time, or with chores!

12. Requiring or encouraging the use of cafeteria trays increased vegetable consumption: students without trays eat 21 percent less salad but no less ice cream.

Kids can only carry so much and when they have to lighten the load, you know which items gotta go.  Plate the food you want your children to eat, and have them sit while eating.  It’s your best bet for getting your kids to eat more than their one, true favorite.

If you want to know more about how the environment influences eating, read Wansink’s book Mindless Eating. 

It’s an easy, informative read. More importantly, it’s makes a great case for why It’s Not About Nutrition.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~

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Reader Comments (8)

I totally agree and understand 'these researchers' 12 changes for redesigning school cafeterias'. Eating food is also mental and visionary. When I went to my daughter's pre-school during lunch time, I was shocked. Most of the food the kids were eating there were no colors. Plain pasta, sunflower seed spread sandwich and just bagel with cream cheese. No side dish of vegetables or fruits. It's only one flavor for lunch, it's not fun. One day I hosted 'make your own Sushi lunch' at the school and the kids made their own hand roll Sushi by choosing filling them self. I tried to be colorful to attract them so I put out 5 different kinds of vegetables (avocados, cucumbers, tomatoes, Shiso leaf, carrots), scrabbled eggs, grilled salmon, cooked chicken and sesame seeds. I sold everything! Most of the kids hadn't had Sushi before and when I catered Sushi for my daughter's Birthday party at the school they even didn't want to touch them. Now I hear some of the kids are asking their parents to make it at home!

October 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterYuko Hosie


I know what you mean about the no-color food we give often give to kids. I love the idea of teaching kids about Sushi. It's the perfect kid-friendly food!


October 27, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

I have a few comments...

I recently had lunch at Price Chopper's beautiful new corporate headquarters in Schenectady, NY. In their new cafeteria, they strategically placed the salad station first. Bravo, Price Chopper.

My husband and I have started a habit of having a little chopping and slicing party on Sunday nights. We take about a half hour to slice up apples, carrots, cucumbers, grapes, oranges, celery, red peppers, canteloupe, pears, etc and we put them in snack bags and place all the bags in the produce drawer. So all week, we have healthy snacks that are as easy to grab as a handful of crackers or cookies. It makes lunch-making quicker during the week, too.

My daughter lovers her purple veggies and dip container from The Container Store and it goes with her to Kindergarten at least once a week.

October 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

"What if the solution isn’t changing the quality of food that’s being served? What if the solution is changing the way the food is offered?"

Really? While I agree that some simple logistical changes can be made to encourage older kids to choose healthier options, let's face it, school's serve our kids the very foods you say are teaching them to make bad choices. The elementary school aged children in my district get served all the food on the menu and have no choice in what they take on their tray. The menu for the 1st week in October was:

Hot dog on a roll, tater tots, applesauce, dessert, milk
Bagel and cream cheese, a cheese stick, baby carrots, orange wedges, dessert, milk
Toasted cheese on white bread, smiley fries, fresh fruit, dessert, milk
Pancakes with syrup, sausage links, 100% juice, blueberries with "topping", dessert, milk
Stuffed crust pizza, tossed salad, an apple, dessert, milk

So what's a parent to do? My kids start kindergarten next year. For the most part, they don't eat the foods the school serves on a regular basis and will want to pack their lunches most days. However, how can I tell them those foods are "sometimes" or "special occasion" foods for parties or other occasional events when the school if teaching them and their classmates that they are everyday, all the time foods? What about when they decide they want to give the school lunch a try because all their friends are eating it? They already ask to buy the candy, cookies, and chips for snack that their classmates are eating at preschool. They are bright, observant, 5-year-olds who eat a wonderful, healthy variety of food, but they see what their friends eat. I think, at least in the younger grades, we and the schools have a responsibility to feed our children real, healthy foods so that they develop a taste for them and are better armed to make healthy choices as they grow older.

October 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRhonda


I agree with you that schools can improve their offerings. But the research that shows that changing how food is presented is interesting and it offers a way to improve how kids eat NOW, rather than waiting until schools start offering healthier fare.

As for your question about how to tell your children that the foods other kids eat (at home or at school) are "everyday foods" for those kids but "sometimes foods" for your kids... that's easy. Every family does things differently. You must confront this in so many areas of parenting (sleep times, allowances, clothing, toys...). You should absolutely let your children eat the school food SOMETIMES. Learning to balance the marginal (and outright junky) food in proportion to the healthy food may be the most important eating lesson you can teach your kids.

I would LOVE it if school food weren't just healthier, but was tastier too. Until then, you can use School Lunch to teach your kids to eat right, and use the research findings to learn how environment shapes eating choices.

Thanks for your comment.


October 31, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose


Great snack strategy. I may institute chopping night at my house too so our fruits and veggies are ready to go!


October 31, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Retooling the flow of the cafeteria is a great idea and it's wonderful that more schools are getting on board. Rhonda's comment is over a year old, but I have a response comment. I have a kindergartener in public school this year. She gets a packed lunch almost every day. She has bought lunch twice in the cafeteria. Our school's menu is the same as Rhonda's. I have simply told little Princess that cafeteria food is the same as McDonald's- it's ok to eat it every once in a while, but isn't really the healthiest food. It's a simple explanation for little kids. She has friends who buy lunch every day, yet she has never asked me why they get to eat that junk every day. She assumes that their parents don't think about nutrition as much as we do & that's OK. Different families have different things to focus on. Besides, some of those children might need the free lunch program and would go hungry without it.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMeg


I love your approach to school lunch. I used a similar one - though I let my daughter have school lunch twice a week. She's happy with that arrangement.

I especially like your recognition that different families have different things to focus on. How true.

Thanks for your comment.


April 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

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