Habits that Help: How to Utilize Our Food-Choice Biases to Improve Nutrition

selecting from buffetEating behaviors tend to be programmed during childhood as kids determine what foods they do or do not like, so increasing a child’s preference for healthy food options at an early age can create a foundation for healthy living. Researchers David Just, Lisa Mancino, and Brian Wansink examined the mental and environmental cues that influence food choice in order to find ways for nutritional assistance programs, such as the National School Lunch and School Break Breakfast Programs, to positively impact diet quality.

By combining principles from behavioral economics, psychology, and marketing, the researchers uncovered underlying patterns in how people choose & consume food. The researchers’ following findings can be helpful when trying to improve nutrition in the lunchroom:

A) Pre-selection helps people make healthier choices.
Self-control can be difficult in the presence of tempting foods, so people tend to make healthier decisions before mealtime.

How This Can Help: Letting children pre-select meal options before they are faced with competitive foods nudges them towards selecting healthier meals. Reviewing menus with children in the classroom will help students choose nutrient-dense lunches over tempting, unhealthy foods.

B) The default option is the most likely to be chosen.
Even when there is no cost for choosing a different option, people tend to choose whichever default option in presented.

How This Can Help: Making the default lunch for children a healthier choice may improve overall school nutrition. This can be accomplished by creating a pre-plated meal, designating a featured entrée of the day, or packaging a grab-and-go option that serves as the default meal choice.

C) Food choice tends to be impulsive and emotional, rather than rational.
Food presentation, smell, desirability, and perceived taste tend to impact food choice, which is why people make poorer food decisions when food is present. Emotions such as stress or sadness may also lower people’s rationality in terms of food choice.

How This Can Help: Improving the presentation of healthy foods and displaying them front and center may help draw students to them, bypassing the appeal of less healthy foods.

D) External cues play a large role in food choice & eating behaviors.
Aside from the food itself, people are influenced by many external cues, including: noise, lighting, container shape, and number of people at a table.

How This Can Help: Small adjustments can help children become more aware of their intake, such as increasing lighting or reducing the number of students at a table.


Kelsey Gatto, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs


Just, D.R., Mancino, L., & Wansink, B. (2007). Could behavioral economics help improve diet quality for nutrition assistance program participants? Economic Research Report No. (ERR-43), 34pp.