Interview with Dr. Brian Wansink, Master of Lunchroom Trickery

by Bettina Elias Siegel on March 31, 2011

Last week I wrote about Dr. Brian Wansink, the Cornell University professor who specializes in behavioral economics and consumer behavior — especially human eating behavior.  He’s the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, the author of the best-selling Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, and is probably most famous for his ingenious bottomless bowl of soup.

In my post (“Tricking Kids into Better Lunch Room Choices“) I told you how Dr. Wansink’s simple lunch room innovations cause students to unconsciously make better food choices –e.g., he’s shown that placing fresh fruit by the end of the line can increase fruit sales by 70 percent, and using catchy names for the vegetables can improve their sales by more than 25 percent.  The federal government is now giving Dr. Wansink a million dollars to spread these ideas to schools as part of a “Smarter Lunchrooms Initiative.”

At the end of my post, though, I asked how much of the healthier food taken was actually ending up in the trash.  I posed this question because in my own observation of my kids’ elementary lunch room I’ve seen children do just that — take fruits and vegetables even though they’re not required to (our district uses “offer vs. serve”) — yet then leave those foods untouched.

I emailed this question to Dr. Wansink, not really expecting a reply, but to my surprise he told me he’d be happy to answer my questions by telephone.  We spoke last night and here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.  I hope you’ll find it as fun and stimulating as I did:

TLT: As you know from my email, I was wondering if anyone on your team looked at how much of the healthy food that people were “tricked” into taking was actually eaten?  In other word, was food consumption commensurate with the increase in sales?

BW: In some lunch room studies we did also do plate waste studies, but looking at aggregate trash isn’t really instructive since, for example, we don’t know how many people took all those green beans we find in the trash can.  So instead we’ve also done some individual plate waste studies, but [for practical reasons] we do it on only a sub-sample of the population.

What we’ve found are two contrasts.  In one study we did in Utah, we just forced vegetables on people.  You got what you asked for in the lunch line but you also got a scoop of whatever vegetable was being served that day.  And what we find is that a vast amount [between 85% - 100% depending on what's served] of food that isn’t requested is thrown away.

But if you can trick a person into taking something – maybe you call the broccoli “Abracadabra Magic Broccoli Bites” and the person of his own volition says, “I’ll take that” — there’s a much higher likelihood that he will end up consuming it.  It’s the notion of cognitive dissonance, the idea that you don’t want to say, “I did something because I’m an idiot.”  You say, “I took the broccoli because, at the time, I thought it was a good idea.  So I must now eat the broccoli — otherwise I must be an idiot.”

TLT:  I can understand that.  But the reason why I asked is that I’ve seen elementary school children take fruits and vegetables in the lunch line — even though they’re not required to — but then they leave those foods entirely untouched.

BW: Oh, well elementary kids are a different animal.  They don’t have any frontal lobe.  They just randomly do things and certainly there’s no self-reflection of attribution there.  That kicks in big time in junior high and high school and then we see huge effects.  It’s so much more rich then because older kids are thinking, so then you can use the thinking in your favor.  In elementary school there are certain things that can be done, but a lot of them won’t work.

TLT:  Well, just out of curiosity, what are some of the things that do work at the elementary level?

BW: One huge thing that works is sequential choice.  In other words, you try to sequence things by putting something they like that’s also healthy first [on the lunch line] and then the less healthy, nasty thing last.  These little gooblets are not really influenced by their frontal lobe.  It’s like, “Wow – that’s the first thing, does it look good?  OK, I’ll take it.” And then the entree choice is eliminated and they go on to the next thing.

TLT:  From what I’ve read about you, it sounds like you’re not a fan of removing less healthy food from lunch rooms.  Instead, you’d rather just engineer the lunch room so that kids don’t take the unhealthy food.   Is that a fair characterization?

BW: Absolutely.  Let’s take an extreme example.  What if someone says, “I don’t think we should have cookies in the lunch room.”  And then it becomes, “I also don’t think we should have mashed potatoes, or peas, or corn . . . ”  Soon there’s nothing but green beans and tofu left and maybe two kids will eat that.  There’s never any alternative, other than these two nasty things.  I would rather that you make the lunch room rich and enticing, but we’ll set it up so you eat more healthfully than you ever thought you would.  Because once a kid says, “I’m not going to eat hot lunch,”  three out of four times the result is much worse – they skip lunch completely, or bring a lunch of Funions, or order a Dominos pizza to the side door, or whatever.

TLT:  Can you tell me a little more about your “Smarter Lunchrooms Initiative?”  What exactly would an interested food services director receive from you and how much would it cost?

BW: It costs nothing!  And schools are so beleaguered right now — any suggestions we give, we guarantee  will cost a school less than $50 to implement.  I mean, if school wants a tremendous lunch room makeover, we’ll tell them, OK, here’s how you can officially diagnose problems and prescribe changes.  But most schools don’t have the background or confidence to do that, and for them we say, OK, here are the two changes for this year to make.  [The information is communicated for free in School Nutrition Association newsletters.]

In 2011 we’re promoting two changes which have a big, empirical impact.  The first is making fruit visible.  Take it out of the nasty steamer pan under glass and put in a nice bowl that you buy at a rummage sale or TG Maxx and put it in a nicely lit place.  That doubles the amount of fruit people take.  And with vegetables, we find that simply putting a little menu card calling something “creamy corn” versus “corn,” or “crunchy carrots” versus “carrots” will lead to a 28 percent increase in kids taking vegetables.

We’ve done dozens of studies here of the top forty things to do, but if you tell people that they feel overwhelmed and won’t do anything.  So every year we focus on just a couple of things that the beleaguered, over-budget food services director can do.  And our hope is that they do this and think, “This is unbelievable!  I can’t believe the difference!” and then one of two things happen.  They make two more changes the next year, or they think, “What else can I do in a bigger way to my lunch room?” and that’s when we say exactly how you can self-diagnose and prescribe the right changes.  But we don’t want to start off doing that because it’s too freaky for most people.

TLT:  Where can interested TLT readers and interested food service personnel get more information?

BW: For schools, there are two websites people can visit:  smarterlunchrooms.org and ben.cornell.edu.   And for people who want to try to do these things at home, visit mindlesseating.org.

TLT: So, you mean these tricks can also work at home, with picky eaters and things like that?

BW: Absolutely!  It’s all about presenting things in a way that makes a person say, “I want that.”  I have three girls under the age of five and setting things up that way really helps.

* * *

Thanks to Dr. Wansink for allowing me to interview him for The Lunch Tray!   I look forward to hearing how his research gets implemented in lunch rooms around the country to improve children’s eating behavior, and I’ll provide any updates here on TLT.

 

 

 

 

 

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Maggie March 31, 2011 at 7:47 am

Love it! Especially since I work in an elementary – had to laugh at the descriptions of the elementary age students.

I’ve drifted away from the descriptive terms on the menu (had some feedback from teachers that the “extra” words were confusing for the younger readers), but I’m thinking I’ll go back to doing that.

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 31, 2011 at 8:34 am

I plan to use “gooblets” in conversation several times today.

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Justin March 31, 2011 at 9:13 am

This was a great interview. Thanks for doing it!

One particular bit of info I found nice to hear was his recommendation of making the food look more appetizing by putting it in a bowl and giving it an appetizing description. I read quite a few food blogs and one or two other school lunch blogs and that’s a trend I’ve noticed–how absolutely horrible the food looks the way it’s presented.

I can’t tell you how many photos I’ve seen of pale imported fruit, sometimes bruised and brown and served in the big cardboard box it came in. To me, that looks more like its final resting place (the trash) than a serving vessel. The other thing is how much pre-packaging is done now. Do we really need grilled cheese in a bag? It’s certainly not going to appear “toasty” that way. I equate plastic with soggy. How about a burger sealed in a cardboard and plastic bowl that’s warming oven safe and the bun tossed onto the tray alongside it (no plate, no lettuce or condiments). Is it so hard to assemble a burger as it’s being handed-out? Why not make the condiment bar fun with sliced fresh veggies and toppings?

I don’t have my own kids yet, but I ate a lot of “Hot Lunch” voluntarily in school (I’ve always liked prepared meals instead of sandwiches) and we always had those washable plastic divided trays and someone scooped the food onto them as you held it out. I can’t believe the self-service and sheer volume of styrofoam and plastic that’s used today. If you want kids to care about their food, perhaps the kitchen staff needs to show they care about the food too. It’s to the point where even McDonald’s has a better presentation, and that’s pretty sad.

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 31, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Justin – totally agree! I took a picture of bok choy served in my kid’s lunch room just today and it was totally overcooked and sad and limp. No wonder no one touches it. On the other hand, at least in such a huge district like Houston, it seems like an enormous challenge to get all 300 campuses serving food at the proper temperature in an attractive way. A very important piece of the puzzle that we do need to solve. Thanks for commenting on TLT!

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Lisa Suriano March 31, 2011 at 9:23 am

Great piece! I really appreciate the approach to make changes incrementally. Its so important to make changes feel manageable and realistic for administrators.

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Karen March 31, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I love this interview! See, I told you kids don’t have a mature frontal lobe (see comment on your post about policing the corner store) – BW says they don’t even HAVE a frontal lobe. That cracked me up.

I recently read “Switch,” a book about managing change. They present a case study of how much inedible popcorn people will eat, relative to the size of the container it’s served in. The popcorn was as bad as they could make it (a week old, unsalted, blech) but if served in a gigantic box people ate much, much more of it than when it was served in a small container. We really are idiots, all of us.

I’m totally trying the “crunchy carrots” trick tonight.

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Karen March 31, 2011 at 1:58 pm

I looked at Wansink’s various websites and I think the case study on popcorn, written about in “Switch,” was one of his! Small world.

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 31, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Yes, didn’t have time to comment back, but that is one of his many experiments. He’s a really interesting guy and has come up with some innovative studies. My favorite – -analyzing 50+ paintings of the Last Supper to determine how much portion size has increased over time! (More here.)

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 31, 2011 at 4:21 pm

I know he didn’t mean that the don’t have a frontal lobe, but that is how they behave often, isn’t it? :-)

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Shira March 31, 2011 at 2:41 pm

I love this line regarding elementary school aged kids…
“They don’t have any frontal lobe. They just randomly do things and certainly there’s no self-reflection of attribution there”

oh yes… I’ve got two of those, and that description is not just about their lunchroom choices :)

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Karen March 31, 2011 at 4:05 pm

LOL.

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