Much of the work of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (BEN Center) focuses on designing environments where individuals are more likely to make healthy food choices. Their program, the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, focuses on the lunchroom environment but allowing students to practice making healthy choices outside of the lunchroom is equally important. One place where healthy habits can be discussed and practiced is the classroom!
Making healthy snacks available at snack time and during classroom celebrations can help children practice making healthy food choices—if only cookies are offered at snack time, students will eat cookies, however, give them the option of cookies or apple slices and some will choose the latter. The Smart Snacks in Schools guidelines place restrictions on snacks and beverages sold in the cafeterias and through vending machines so practicing eating healthier snacks in the classroom is another way for students to learn to add these snacks to their diet. Additionally, outside of school, children may have many different food choices, helping them to learn that making a healthy choice is easy and tasty is a step towards developing lifelong healthy eating habits.
Students choose snacks based on convenience and taste. In one Cornell study researchers found that those who prefer salty foods prefer vegetables over fruit and those who love sweets prefer fruit over vegetables (Wansink). One way to make use of this information is to share it with the students and make snack time into a learning activity. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Ask students to list their top three favorite snacks, younger students could draw the snacks instead
- Then ask students if they prefer salty snacks like chips or cheese or if they prefer sweet snacks like candy or cookies
- Ask those students who prefer salty foods to return to their snack list and find one healthy alternative to each of the three snacks that incorporates vegetables. For example if a student loves French fries a healthy alternative might be carrot sticks. For elementary students give them a list of healthy veggies to choose from and explain what makes vegetables a healthy option. Middle school students may be more inclined to come up with their own snack ideas.
- Ask those students who prefer sweets to return to their snack list and find one healthy alternative to each of the three snacks that incorporates fruit. For example, a student that loves gummy worms may choose grapes instead.
- Finally ask each student to list the characteristics that the original three snacks have in common with the healthier options—tell them to think about texture, shape, how you eat it and flavor. For the French fries example, the student may say something like, carrots sticks are similar to French fries in that they are shaped like fries, they are dipped in sauce, and you can eat them with your fingers. Alternately, this step can be effective as a group exercise.
Snack time is an opportunity to get students to talk about food they eat to fuel their bodies and brains. Remember the emphasis of this activity is not to force kids to forgo their favorite snacks but to supply them with alternate snacking ideas so that when given the choice, they may give the healthier options a try.
Katherine Baildon, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs
Wansink, Brian; Ganael Bascoul and Gary T Chen. (2006). The sweet tooth hypothesis: How fruit consumption relates to snack consumption. Appetite, 47(1), 107-110.