Big Idea: Non-Monetary Incentives can be used to improve food choices in after-school programs in grades 1-8

Useful for:

After-school program coordinators, school administrators, teachers

Why is it Important?

Incentives have been used in other contexts to ‘nudge’ people to make better decisions, while preserving the choice. For example – incentives have worked in encouraging adults to lose weight, stop smoking and adhere to taking prescribed medication. Here, we investigate the impact of using this approach with children in schools.

A Success Story for Incentives

Researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin-Madison worked with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to investigate the effect of incentives on nudging children to make healthier dessert choices in the school cafeteria. Seventeen after-school programs in the Chicago-area, which together serve over 1,000 school-aged children, grades 1-8, in their Kids Cafes, participated. The after-school programs in this study were aimed at low food security areas with high rates of children eligible for Free/Reduced School Lunch.

Children were given a choice between two desserts, following their after-school meal: A cookie and a dried fruit cup. Each child could choose only 1.

This was a field experiment so some Kids Cafes were randomized to receive an incentive for choosing and eating the fruit, while other Kids Cafes were a ‘baseline’. Using such a method means that researchers are able to definitively report that the intervention caused the desired behavior. The incentives were small toys, costing just 15 cents each or less, that promoted fruit: fruit key chains, fruit colored wrist-bands, trophies and pens with the message ‘eat strong to be strong.’


What did researchers find? In the group not receiving any incentives, over 80% of kids chose cookies. However, in the group that received an incentive for choosing the healthier fruit cup, almost 80% chose fruit. In addition, they saw less waste of fruit in the group that was incentivized as compared to the group that was not. Finally, researchers compared this result to a separate intervention in which they used only educational messaging and no incentives. The short, 5-minute educational messaging focused on the importance of eating fruit on the MyPyramid (at that time, MyPyramid was the recommended educational tool as USDA switched to MyPlate in 2011). Researchers found that incentives worked far better than education – the particular short educational messaging used had no effect on improving fruit choice.


  • Giving incentives is an effective way to get almost all children selecting and eating fruit, even when most children were choosing cookies before
  • Incentives can be very small, costing less than 15 cents each
  • Linking incentives to consumption rather than selection is the key to getting kids to actually eat the food
  • When you are short on time, incentives work better than education alone

When you use incentives, be creative! The team at the University of Chicago and University of Wisconsin-Madison are now looking into the impact of even smaller incentives – such as stickers, small erasers, and so on.


Anya Samak, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison


The Behavioralist as Nutritionist: Leveraging Behavioral Economics to Improve Child Food Choice and Consumption, by John A. List and Anya Savikhin Samek, Working paper, 2014.