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NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on subtle tricks to encourage kids to eat right.
ALLISON AUBREY: Whether we like it or not, most American kids have come to expect choices - lots of them. And Penny McConnell, the school food director in Fairfax County, Virginia, says that's why today, she's conducting a taste test. She's asking her students whether they like a bunch of new items that she's considering adding to the menu.
PENNY MCCONNELL: Unidentified Group: Yeah.
MCCONNELL: OK. The first thing we're going to test is cheese sauce with a couple of tortilla chips.
AUBREY: Assistants in white chefs hats and aprons serve up tiny bowls. And the kids are given pencils and a survey to rate the foods. They feel like little patrons being catered to.
NITYA REDDY: It tastes really good. It's, like, better than the ones that we have now.
BELLA BULHOES: It's so good.
AUBREY: Nitya Reddy and Bella Bulhoes are fifth-graders at Oakton Elementary. They say it makes them feel important just being asked their opinions.
BULHOES: I'm going to circle good, because, like, it tastes, like, just like the restaurant. And I'm really surprised about that. And it would be awesome to have in our school.
AUBREY: What the kids don't seem to notice is that this isn't your standard nacho dip. Pureed into the cheese are a bunch of vegetables: There's butternut squash, sweet potatoes, white beans. The recipe was developed by two moms who've come up with a whole line of cafeteria foods that they're marketing to schools across the country that they call Hidden Healthies. Sixth-grader Tyler Clifford is not yet in on the secret.
TYLER CLIFFORD: I would be surprised if there was vegetables in there.
AUBREY: His classmate Emily Park says something seems to be up with this dip.
EMILY PARK: It tastes a little different, but I'm not sure, like, how it tastes different.
AUBREY: After the kids are told that each of these new recipes is loaded with a bunch of vegetables and nutrients, sixth-grader Christian Leavitt says it's a clever idea, camouflaging healthy ingredients.
CHRISTIAN LEAVITT: They probably have it hidden, because some kids don't like broccoli or other things. So it would be a good idea to hide them, kind of.
AUBREY: Hiding healthy stuff maybe a good solution for the middle-school set. They're notoriously picky eaters, and rejecting foods that adults insist are good for you is part of growing up.
DAVID JUST: Food, to a certain extent, is one way of expressing their identity.
AUBREY: David Just co-directs the Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition at Cornell University. He says there's a limitation to the stealth health strategy. It doesn't teach kids to choose better foods on their own.
JUST: To choose the fruits and vegetables, I have to actually choose these fruits and vegetables and not just have them slipped into my meals, you know, surreptitiously.
AUBREY: So students won't necessarily become better eaters. They'll just eat better at school. Just and his colleagues have a new grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to do more than just change recipes. They're going to evaluate a bunch of subtle, psychological nudges - everything from financial incentives to arranging food differently on a lunch line. Take the example of milk: Most kids prefer chocolate, so that's what they pick up.
JUST: But there's some portion of the kids that don't particularly care whether they choose chocolate or white.
AUBREY: Just says when one middle school tried making the chocolate milk a little less convenient by moving it six inches behind the white milk, more kids put the white milk on their trays.
JUST: You've got, you know, 20 to 30 percent of kids who suddenly switch. And they're getting less calories for the same amount of protein and other, you know, calcium, and other good things that are coming in.
AUBREY: There are likely lots of ways to nudge students using visual cues. Researcher Ann Ferris of the University of Connecticut is trying the kind of fancy lighting techniques you'd see in the aisles of Whole Foods.
ANN FERRIS: All of the schools that we're working in use a fluorescent light that doesn't make somebody look good, you know, in an office environment. It doesn't make food look good, either.
AUBREY: She's going to document what happens when school cafeterias switch to specialty Promolux bulbs that enhance color and spotlights foods that are healthy. Her hope is that kids will buy more of the spotlighted foods without really noticing.
FERRIS: We got to figure out some things that the last thing in the world they know is that we're trying to get them to eat well.
AUBREY: Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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