March 20, 2007 / 3:43 PM / 12 years ago

Simple question gets school children to eat fruit

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Getting children to eat more fruit may be as simple as getting cafeteria workers to use a simple verbal prompt in the lunch line, a study of school lunch programs suggests.

The study found that when cafeteria workers asked elementary school children if they wanted fruit or juice with their lunch, the children usually took one or the other. More importantly, most of the children actually consumed it.

Dr. Marlene B. Schwartz of the Yale University Department of Psychology in New Haven, Connecticut, reports the findings in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

In recent years, critics have charged that “a la carte” options in school cafeterias — which often include junk foods — compete with the traditional school lunch, causing kids to choose nutritionally dubious fare over a more balanced meal.

But a traditional school lunch involves some choice as well. The federal government’s National School Lunch Program requires participating schools to offer foods that meet nutritional guidelines, which includes offering each of several components: a meat or meat substitute; milk; grains and breads; and fruits and vegetables.

However, children only have to choose three of these components, which means they can avoid fruits and vegetables altogether.

In the current study, one Connecticut elementary school tried a simple intervention to encourage students to choose fruit: they had cafeteria staff ask each child: “Would you like fruit or juice with your lunch?”

The students’ lunchtime fruit intake was compared with that of children at a “control” school in the same district, where the same amount of fruit and fruit juice was available but presented in the standard, question-free manner.

Over 2 days, Schwartz found that 90 percent of children in the intervention school opted for fruit or fruit juice, versus 60 percent of those in the control school. In both schools, about 80 percent of children who chose fruit actually ate it.

But while the “Want fruit?” question is simple enough, implementing a policy change to get cafeteria workers everywhere to say it would not be so simple. There is money involved, Schwartz pointed out, since fruits and vegetables are relatively expensive for schools, and increased consumption would mean increased costs.

“The decision has to be made at the top,” she said, referring to the federal government, which reimburses schools at a certain rate per lunch served — and makes the nutritional guidelines that schools follow.

Giving kids a “verbal prompt” is one tactic to boost fruit and vegetable consumption at lunch. Another, Schwartz noted, would be for the government to change its regulations to require that fruits and vegetables be one of the three options students include in their lunch every day.

Regardless of whether the study findings affect school lunch policy, Schwartz said they do show that, with a little encouragement, kids will eat fruit. So parents should have it on hand.

“Simply having it in front of you increases the chances you’ll eat it,” Schwartz said.

“Peel the orange,” she advised, “and have it there waiting when your child gets home from school.”

SOURCE: International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, online March 5, 2007.

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