Food Order Leads Kids to Make Healthy Choices in the Lunch Line

Each school day, over 31 million K-12 students eat a USDA reimbursable meal. Food service at most schools consists of a lunch line where students move though the line and make their food choices. This buffet style service provides students with choices while also streamlining the process of selecting and buying items. It is a routine that students quickly become accustomed to; selecting food is often more of an automatic or habitual action than a thoughtful process. These “automatic actions” can be leveraged to encourage better, more healthful choices.

Designing a lunch line that makes the healthiest food the most prominently displayed can encourage students to automatically select healthier foods! According to a 2011 study conducted by Cornell University’s Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (BEN Center), moving an entrée to first in line can increase sales by 11% in school lunchrooms (1). Research by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab published in 2013 shows that over 65% of what is on a persons’ plate is comprised of the first three foods in a buffet. This was true whether or not the first food was a nutrient dense option. Specifically, when fruit was offered first over 86% of people selected it compared to only 54.8% when it was last in the line.

These experiments demonstrate the power of food order. Kids and adults alike are influenced to select the first food that they see. Displaying healthy foods first is an essential method to increase sales of healthy items in the lunch-line. As students hurry though the line they are more likely to scoop up that enticing steamed broccoli when it is the item that catches their eye first!

When dining out, parents and children can also be aware of the influence of food order and scan the buffet before making selections or simply start at the salad bar or healthier end of the buffet.


Katherine Baildon, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs


  1. Just, David and Brian Wansink. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. elsevier, 2011. s.v. “Healthy Foods First: Students Take the First Lunchroom Food 11% More Often Than the Third .” 
  2. Wansink, B., & Hanks, A.S. PLOS ONE. 2011. “Slim by design: How the presentation order of buffet food biases selection.”