Increase Meal Participation with Behavioral Economics Principles

cash register

Make Reimbursable Meals Convenient – During the lunch period, place Grab N’Go meals in high traffic areas or near popular hangouts. In other words, bring the food  to them!

Make Reimbursable Meals Look Good – Highlight the meal with colorful linens, trays, lighting and garnish. We eat with our eyes first!

Make Components of a Reimbursable Meal Visible – Placing fruits, vegetables and targeted entrées, or images of these foods, in highly visible locations (student eye-level) prompts students to take and consume them! If you see it…you will eat it!

Brand it! – Simply by adding a brand to the meals (the Bobcat Breakfast, or Mrs. W’s Wacky Wednesday) can increase the purchase and consumption of those meals. Think brand loyalty!

Make it a Meal Deal – Bundling items in different ways highlights the variety of options available.  For example, bundle fruit slices with yogurt for a healthy snack.  We can’t resist the Value Meals!

Talk it up! – By drawing attention to highlighted options with verbal prompts, students are encouraged to consider options they may not have otherwise. Highlight items you want them to take, such as fruits or veggies.  For example, encourage cafeteria staff to charmingly say, “Would you like an apple or celery with your lunch today?”

Make your Dining Space Inviting – Creating a space which invites people to linger is conducive to eating more and increases satisfaction! Students feel the food is better if the space is appealing, even if the recipes haven’t changed!

Follow the Leader – Peer pressure can be positive when it comes to healthy eating! Assign a “spokesperson” for highlighted meals or have classes name the foods on the menu. People often follow the example of those near them, so start a healthy trend!

Traffic Patterns – When we are around food…we want to eat food. Engineer the traffic patterns so all students are passing through the lunch line before entering the dining room. Why do you think grocery stores have so many products near the checkouts?!?

Let them Make the Decisions – Engaging people in the decision making process fosters positive perceptions. Have students choose items that appear on the menus, name the foods, participate in cafeteria layout design etc.  Additionally, create a Student Nutrition Action Committee! 


Kate Hoy, Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs


Smarter Lunchroom Movement