Perform Your Own “Smarter Lunchroom Makeover”: The Simple, Low-Cost Changes That Can Improve Students’ Lunch Selections

girl in lunch line Getting students to actually select and eat the healthy options offered during lunch may seem like a daunting task, but the mere layout of a lunchroom can nudge students towards healthy choices.

The secret lies in the ability to influence choice without restricting it—a behavioral science principle known as “Libertarian Paternalism”—or less formally as “nudging.” To influence students’ food selection, researchers performed “Smarter Lunchroom Makeovers” in a few New York state school cafeterias to encourage the sale of fruits and vegetables without forcing them on students. After only 3 hours and less than $50 spent revamping the lunch lines, the following changes occurred: 

  • Fruit purchases increased by 13%
  • Vegetable purchases increased by 23%
  • Fruit consumption increased by 18%
  • Vegetable consumption increased by 25%

The Smarter Lunchroom Makeovers focused on simple low-cost and no-cost lunchroom upgrades that improved the appeal of fruits and vegetables by improving 3 areas: their Convenience, Attractiveness, and Normativeness (the degree to which the choice is seen as the normal, default option).

Do you want to implement changes and see results in your own school cafeteria?
Focus on these same 3 areas:

1) Convenience

  • Create a convenience line that only sells healthier options
  • Serve pre-assembled salads in clear containers so that students can see the selection
  • Move fresh fruit closer to the cash register to improve grab-and-go appeal
  • Keep 100% fruit juice containers in the cooler right next to the ice cream

2) Attractiveness

  • Post beautiful pictures of fruits & vegetables on lunch boards and menus
  • Create descriptive, delicious-sounding names for vegetable dishes
  • Display fruit in attractive bowls or tiered stands rather than plastic tubs or metal pans

3) Normativeness

  • Verbally prompt students to remind them of their choices, such as:
“Would you like to try…?”
“No vegetable yet? How about…?”
“You can get another side with your meal! How about grabbing a piece of fruit by the register?”
  • Display visible signs to capture students’ attention, such as a “Last Chance for Fruit” sign located next to a bowl of fruit by the register



Kelsey Gatto, Cornell University Food and Brand Lab 


Hanks, A.S., Just, D.R., & Wansink, B. (2013). “Smarter lunchrooms can address new school lunchroom guidelines and childhood obesity.The Journal of Pediatrics, 162(4): 867-869.