How Schools Are Getting Kids to Eat Healthy Foods

New report reveals strategies for successful meal programs

Healthy foods

Nutrition directors have identified many effective strategies to entice students to healthier meals and snacks, a national survey finds.

© The Pew Charitable Trusts

Several studies have shown impressive improvements in students’ food choices since 2012, when updated school nutrition standards began to take effect across the country. Children are selecting more nutritious meals and eating more of the healthy entrees, fruits, and vegetables they take. This rapid upturn in students’ habits raises an important question: How are schools doing it? To find answers, the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project—a collaboration between The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—surveyed nutrition directors about their practices and experiences three years into the transition to healthier school meals and snacks and captured the findings in a new report, School Meal Programs Innovate to Improve Student Nutrition.

The nationally representative survey, known as the School Meal Approaches, Resources, and Trends Study, reveals that the most successful school meal programs use a mix of strategies that extend beyond the cafeteria to improve the appeal of healthier foods, invite student input, and provide more convenient service, including:

  • Salad bars. Almost two-thirds of nutrition directors who increased the use of salad bars said kids ate more fruits and vegetables as a result.
  • Scratch cooking. Directors whose programs prepared more foods from scratch were more likely to report stable or increased student participation in the 2014-15 school year, compared with before they implemented the updated nutrition standards.
  • Easing access to school meals. For example, more than 9 in 10 directors who expanded breakfast service to locations outside the cafeteria, such as classrooms, or increased “grab and go” options said more students took advantage of school meals.
  • Giving students a voice in menu decisions. For instance, more than 8 in 10 directors who hosted student recipe competitions or formed student advisory committees said these steps boosted meal program participation.

More of nutrition directors’ top-rated practices can be found in the report and in our fact sheet.

Healthy food

Strategies that seek kids’ input and ideas, such as student cooking competitions like the Cooking up Change contest, above, produced healthier eating habits and greater interest in school meals, according to nutrition directors.

© The Pew Charitable Trusts

These strategies benefit not only student health, but also meal programs’ bottom lines; 54 percent of directors said total revenue increased in school year 2014-15, compared with the year before, and an additional 30 percent said revenue held steady, proving that better nutrition and financial stability can go hand in hand. (See graph.)

School meal programs

As encouraging as the gains have been, even greater advances for student nutrition—and school meal programs—appear possible. Some highly rated strategies are being used in only a fraction of districts. For instance, directors who worked with outside chefs to develop recipes, offered breakfast outside of the cafeteria, or took steps to increase the time kids have to eat tended to report an increase in student participation, but no more than 2 in 10 programs used each of these strategies. These results may reflect barriers to adoption such as the need for other district staff to allow food service in classrooms or support adjustments to school schedules.

Because most schools provide much more than breakfast and lunch, we also asked nutrition directors about their districts’ progress in serving healthier snacks and beverages. All departments and groups on campus that included meal programs were in the first year of implementing the Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards at the time of our survey. About 4 in 10 directors said they got ahead of the curve and began applying the Smart Snacks guidelines—unveiled in June 2013—to their a la carte and vending machine choices before the 2014-15 school year, and more than 6 in 10 said all food and drinks available from these venues met the standards by spring 2015. However, only about 2 in 10 directors said all snacks sold by other departments and groups were meeting updated nutrition standards. These data show that most school meal programs swiftly raised the nutritional quality of their snacks and that much of the remaining work to implement the Smart Snacks standards will require changes supported and even led by other school staff and parents.

Principals, teachers, and parents shape many aspects of school food policies, making their leadership and collaboration with nutrition staff vital to improving student nutrition. And this school year presents a particularly important opportunity, because schools nationwide must update their wellness policies to meet new federal guidelines finalized this summer. So this is a great time for parents and educators to join a school wellness committee or other local efforts, such as a school health advisory group.

Overall, our survey found that schools are having success with healthier menus. Districts are finding creative strategies to ensure that students have consistently nutritious choices and to engage kids in the development of healthy, appetizing meals and snacks. Schools continue to customize their approaches to the needs and preferences of each school, just as they always have. These findings clearly show that when nutrition directors, school leaders, and parents collaborate to find the right mix of strategies to help more students eat well, establish healthy habits, and perform better in the classroom, children, families, and schools all win.

Stephanie Scarmo leads research on school nutrition programs and policies for the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project.

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