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6 Principles of Behavioral Economics Used in Smarter Lunchrooms

The Smarter Lunchrooms National Office has identified 6 principles of behavioral economics that can be applied to the school lunchroom. The principles address environmental cues that influence eating behavior. They work in lunchrooms, and also restaurants, food courts, and even your home kitchen!


The amount of food available influences how much we eat, regardless of official serving sizes. That’s one reason why we consume more chips when snacking directly out of the bag versus from a small bowl. We like to finish our plate and “join the clean plate club.” The USDA Nutrition Standards outline the required minimum portions for items served as part of the National School Lunch Program, yet there are Smarter Lunchrooms strategies that can encourage larger portions of healthier foods and smaller portions of less healthy items.  Keep portion sizes appropriate by using pre-portioned snacks and strategically chosen serving containers and utensils. Super bowls: Serving bowl size and food consumption.1

The Evidence in Action

Research has shown that people serve themselves more food when given larger bowls and larger serving spoons, but generally don’t feel any more full.2 Thus, reducing serving spoon size can result in smaller portions without feeling deprived.

Smarter Lunchrooms Strategies to Manage Portion Size

  • Serve condiments and sauces in individual packets or provide  small-size serving utensils (a teaspoon rather than a pump canister or ladle).
  • Promote a smart salad: lay out small tongs for croutons, and larger ones for greens, vegetables, and other nutrient-dense choices.
  • Review correct portion sizes with lunchroom service staff. If the lunchroom allows hungry kids to request larger portions, encourage extra helpings of fruits, vegetables, and other featured foods.

Food for Thought

Best of all, students will self moderate without any new “rules” or adult supervision needed! No more “ranch police” or other labor-intensive oversight needed!


Convenience influences food choices.3 If a food is easy to reach, along our normal travel route, already prepared, or easy to hold and eat, we are far more likely to eat it rather than if we need to spend extra time or effort to obtain or eat it. Make healthy foods more convenient than less healthy options!

The Evidence in Action

When Smarter Lunchrooms Movement researchers had test schools stock 50% white milk and placed it in front of the chocolate milk, it prompted a 46% increase in the number of students choosing white milk instead of chocolate milk.3 Kids’ perceived preference for chocolate milk over white milk was largely a matter of convenience, since lunchrooms often stock chocolate milk in larger quantities and in the front area of coolers.

Smarter Lunchrooms Strategies to Increase Convenience

  • Offer fruit and vegetables at least twice in each service line, including by each point of sale.4
  • Pre-portion fruits and vegetables (canned or raw) for fast, easy, clean pick-up.
  • Social time is hugely important to kids! Create a healthy convenience service station (window, cart, etc.) with fast, healthy grab-and-go reimbursable meals including fruits, vegetables, white milk, and target entrees.5
  • Place white milk at the front of coolers, making sure it is at least 1/3 of all milk offered.6
  • Offer pre-bagged meals at alternative food service and dining areas (school entrances, hallways, bus, classrooms, food trucks/carts, or other approved school locales).

Food for Thought

In elementary schools, little arms may have trouble reaching the fruit and vegetable displays. Make featured foods easy to reach and grab!


Foods that are easy to see are the first to be selected and eaten, according to research conducted by the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement team.7 So, make healthy foods the stars of the lunchroom: front, center, colorful, exciting, and impossible to ignore! Place featured items first in the serving line or in the front shelf of coolers at student’s eye-level.

The Evidence in Action

In one school district, fresh fruit sales were poor. Fruit was kept in hard-to-see, dull metal chafing dishes behind nearly-opaque sneeze guards. Elementary students couldn’t even see them, much less reach them. In a study, Smarter Lunchroom Movement researchers simply moved the fruit into a well-lit, colorful bowl or stand near the register and fruit sales rose 103%!8

Smarter Lunchrooms Strategies to Improve Visibility

  • Place foods, signage, and labels at eye-level for the students.9,10 Remember: younger kids are shorter!
  • Place foods in multiple places along the line.11  Students may miss them the first time!
  • Use signage and menus to highlight special items.12 Post the next day’s menu to spark interest and increase participation.
  • List the healthiest foods first on menus and announcements.13
  • Have fun with eye-catching tools! Use bright colors, arrows, eye-catching fonts, and pictures. These are especially helpful to beginning readers and English language learners.

Food for Thought

Out of sight = out of mind. Line of sight placement = gets attention!


Foods that look delicious and sound delicious are more likely to taste delicious!  Which salad would you prefer? The Greek Salad nicely packaged in a clam shell with a colorful label, or the smooshed unlabeled salad with plastic wrap still on it?


The Evidence in Action

Giving foods attractive names increases kids’ interest in the foods. In a lunchroom study, giving vegetables creative names such as “X-ray Vision Carrots,” “Power Punch Broccoli,” and ”Turbo Tomatoes” almost doubled vegetable sales.

Smarter Lunchrooms Strategies to Enhance Taste Expectations

  • Give foods catchy names to excite kids’ imaginations and increase their interest in target items such as: Big bad bean burrito, Dinosaur Trees (broccoli), Power Peas, etc.14,15,16,17
    • Add photos or graphics when possible. Print in color.
  • Add splashes of color to service lines using signs, trays, utensils, and linens.
  • Rotate and update decorations and signage quarterly. Feature student artwork and input.
  • Brand the lunchroom using school colors, mascots, etc. Promote featured foods with this branding.
  • Restock food trays and salad bars regularly. Trays should look fresh and bountiful.
  • Nobody wants to eat while looking at the trash can! Hide storage, cleaning materials, and garbage bins.
  • Ensure service and dining areas are clean, orderly, and inviting.

Food for Thought

Make healthy foods look and sound great and enhance the expectations by staging your lunchroom like you'd stage a house for sale: clean, inviting, easy to navigate with all the unsightly items out of sight.


Students respond positively to a smile, a cheerful greeting, and a pleasant suggestion or question. Use signage and train staff to promote healthy target foods with positive prompts and great customer service.

The Evidence in Action

Research shows that people take eating cues from each other.18,19 They “follow the leader” and order foods or portions similar to what the person before them orders.

Smarter Lunchrooms Strategies for Suggestive Selling

  • Use the power of positive role modeling!20,21 Ask teaching and administrative staff members to talk up school food by leading students through the serving line, pointing out or taking healthy options, and even eating with the kids.
  • Use peer-to-peer marketing. Involve students in making signage, promoting foods, and modeling eating healthy school meals.
  • Train service staff to gently prompt students to select and eat target items and balanced meals.
  • Signage works! Add colorful healthy food window clings, stickers, and posters to encourage kids to fill their trays with diverse, nutritious foods.
  • Place pre-plated complete meals (or photos/models) along the service line.22 Make it easy for kids to point to a model tray and say “I’ll take that.”

Food for Thought

If a friend offered you a food by saying, “Try this, it’s amazing!” wouldn’t you take a bite? What about if they prefaced it by making an icky face and asking, “Does this taste funny to you?” A friend or server’s words and attitudes can make all the difference in the word!


People like to get a good deal for their money, which can have both positive effects (such as sticking to a budget) and negative effects (like prompting impulse purchases because treats were on sale, or bundled). Use the power of smart pricing to give healthy foods the edge!

The Evidence in Action

Paying with a credit or debit card can lead to less healthy purchases. A study looked at purchases paid for with cash versus purchases paid for with credit or debit cards. The results show that people buy less healthy items when they pay with a card than when they pay in cash.23

Smarter Lunchrooms Strategies for Smart Pricing Strategies

  • Offer alternative Reimbursable Meal options made up of a la carte items.
  • When bundling treats, combine them with healthy foods or beverages, such as a cookie-and-milk combo versus a three-cookies-for-a-discount combo.
  • Establish a cash-for-cookies policy, wherein students may use credit for meals but cash-only for treats. Students will be far more inclined to charge their accounts (and parents) for treats than to hand over their own cash for those items.

Food for Thought

If one large cookie costs 50 cents but you could buy 3-for-$1, would you go for that? Is it a good deal?

How about if you were asked to pay 50 extra cents to eat “300 extra empty calories?” Is that a good deal? Guess what? It’s the same deal!

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2Wansink, B., van Ittersum, K., & Painter, J. E. (2006). Ice cream illusions: Bowl size, spoon size, and serving size. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 31(3): 240-3.

3Hanks, A. S., Just, D. R., Smith, L. E., & Wansink, B. (2012). Healthy convenience: Nudging students toward healthier choices in the lunchroom. Journal of Public Health, 34(3): 370-6. 

4Blanchette, L. & Brug, J. (2005). Determinants of fruit and vegetable consumption among 6-12-year-old children and effective interventions to increase consumption. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 18(6): 431-43.

5Bridge, E., Granquist, L., Hoffer, E., & Schwartz, A. (2010). Child obesity research project: Testing signage at two middle schools in Everett prepared for and funded by the Office of the Attorney General of Massachusetts. Northeast University, School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs; Access:

6Goto, K., Waite, A., Wolff, C., Chan, K., & Giovanni, M. (2013). Do environmental interventions impact elementary school students’ lunchtime milk selection? Journal of Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, 35(2): 360-76.

7Painter, J. E., Wansink, B., & Hieggelke, J. B. (2002). How visibility and convenience influence candy consumption.” Appetite, 38(3): 237-8.

8Hanks, A. S., Just, D. R., & Wansink, B. (2013). Smarter lunchrooms can address new school lunchroom guidelines and childhood obesity. The Journal of Pediatrics, 162(4), 867-9. 

9Hanks, A. S., Just, D. R., Smith, L. E., & Wansink, B. (2012). Healthy convenience: Nudging students toward healthier choices in the lunchroom. Journal of Public Health, 34(3): 370-6. 

10Thorndike, A. N., Sonnenberg, L., Riis, J., Barraclough, S., & Levy, D. E. (2012). A 2-Phase labeling and choice architecture intervention to improve healthy food and beverage choices. American Journal of Public Health: 102(3): 527-33.

11Stroebele, N. & De Castro, J. M. (2004). Effect of ambience on food intake and food choice. Nutrition, 20(9): 821-36.

12Nicklas, T. A., Johnson, C. C., Myers, L., Farris, R. P., & Cunningham, A. (1998). Outcomes of a high school program to increase fruit and vegetable consumption: Gimme 5 -- a fresh nutrition concept for students. Journal of School Health, 68(6): 248-53.

13Wansink, B. & Love, K. (2014). Slim by design: Menu strategies for promoting high-margin, healthy foods. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 42: 137-43.

14Wansink, Brian, Koert van Ittersum and James E. Painter (2005). How descriptive food names bias sensory perceptions in restaurants.  Food Quality and Preference, 16:5, 393–400.

15Wansink, B., Painter, J. E., & van Itterstrum, K. (2001). Descriptive menu labels’ effect on sales. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administrative Quarterly, 42(6): 68-72.

16Wansink, B., Just, D. R., Payne, C. R., & Klinger, M. (2012). Names sustain increased vegetable intake in schools. Preventative Medicine, 55(4): 330-2. 

17Wansink, B., Shimizu, M., & Campes, G. (2012). What would Batman eat?: Priming children to make healthier fast food choices. Pediatric Obesity, 7(2): 121-3.

18DeCastro, J. M. (2000). Eating behavior: Lessons from the real world of humans. Ingestive Behavior and Obesity, 16: 800-13.

19Herman, C. P., Roth, D. A., & Polivy, J. (2003). Effect of the presence of others on food intake: A normative interpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 129(6): 873-86.

20Centers for Disease Control (2013). Make a difference at your school! Chronic Disease, Paper 31.

21Rhodes, J. E. (2004). The critical ingredient: Caring youth-staff relationships in after-school settings. New Directions of Student Leadership, Special Issue: After-School Worlds: Creating a New Social Space for Development and Learning, 101: 145-61.

22Glanz, K. & Mullis, R. (1988). Environment interventions to promote healthy eating: A review of models, programs, and evidence. Journal of Health Education & Behavior, 15(4): 395-415.

23Thomas, M., Desai, K. K., & Seenivasan, S. (2011). How credit card payments increase unhealthy food purchases: Visceral regulation of vices. Journal of Consumer Research, 38(1): 126-39.