Put on a Happy Face to Get Kids to Eat Healthier Food


For years, children have preferred Happy Meals over healthier options and fried food over vegetables. However, making kids truly happy meals with a smiley face has been proven to get them to eat healthier food. So has the other feature that attracts children to fast food menus – small toys or prizes.

Some restaurants have put happy faces on orders of pancakes or oatmeal for children for years. Additionally, some parents have tried just about everything to get kids to eat better. But, a new study presented on Sunday at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in San Diego shows that adding smiling faces and applying the kid’s meal treatment to healthy foods actually got children to eat the healthier stuff they accompany.

The research was conducted in the cafeteria at an inner-city elementary school that had almost 300 students in Cincinnati. All grades (kindergarten through sixth) were involved. The experiment was done in two phases over a five-month period.

The first phase simply consisted of placing smiley face emoticons on the four most nutritious items offered each day in the school cafeteria. This included a vegetable side dish, plain fat-free milk, a fruit option and an entrée typically made with whole grains. After three months, the cafeteria began offering kids a “Power Plate,” which was a balanced meal consisting of the four types of healthy foods in one meal and was accompanied with little toys or small prizes (stickers, temporary tattoos).

The research team monitored what the children were choosing to buy. But, the cash register receipts were used to measure differences in the purchase of healthy foods from the study’s onset to the end of the five-month intervention provided. The register data showed the dramatic changes in purchasing behavior the very minor incentives made.

The biggest impact observed during the study was the number of children who switched from chocolate milk to plain milk. The sales of chocolate milk decreased from 86.5 percent to 44.6 percent of the cafeteria’s total milk sales. At the same time, sales of the plain fat-free milk jumped significantly from 7.4 percent of total milk sales to 48 percent, an increase of more than 500 percent. Overall, the same amount of kids purchased milk daily, so it was clear that they were swayed to purchase the options with less fat and sugar, the plain milk.

Purchases of fruit and vegetables also increased. The lunch trays that included selection of a vegetable rose by 62 percent. On average, students went from choosing 0.74 vegetables per day to opting for 1.2 items per student daily. The selection of fruit went up by 20 percent. Children on average went from purchasing one fruit item each day to buying 1.2 items. The selection of the four healthy options that comprised the “Power Plate” increased 335 percent from baseline.

Poor food selection in school cafeterias is considered to be a risk factor for childhood obesity, but many claim children will not choose healthy options when others are present. However, this study seems to show just putting on a happy face by the food or something else to attract their eyes will get kids to choose healthier things to eat. The study team believes they found a low-cost and effective way of improving what food elementary school children have for lunch.

By Dyanne Weiss

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