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?
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.