Preordering in School Meal Programs: A Method for Nudging Healthy Food Choices

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When students enter the lunch line, they can be overwhelmed with choices and aromas and make impulsive selections in the “heat of the moment.” This is referred to as hot-state decision making (1). While in a hot-state, students are more likely to select what looks or smells good and can be less likely to select the more healthful components of a meal. Researchers have found that allowing students to preorder meals is an effective way of getting them to select healthier options because they make more rational “cold-state” decisions and are more likely to consider and select healthier options. One study found that when students preordered their lunch entrée, about 14% more students selected the healthier of 2 entrée options (2). Similarly, another study found that when fifth and sixth grade students in a Florida school preordered lunch, selection of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat milk increased (3). This study points to the potential of utilizing preordering systems to encouraging students to select all of the components of a National School Lunch Program reimbursable meal.

A suburban Cleveland school district started a preordering initiative called Picked at Home, Packed at School. The aim of the program is to market school meals to parents and appeal to younger kids who typically bring packed lunches and may not prefer a hot entree.  Through an online parent portal that is part of the school’s point of sale system (POS), parents can log in and select from 6 National School Lunch Program compliant entrees paired with yogurt or string cheese and graham crackers. The entree options are Smuckers Uncrustables, turkey/tortilla roll up, ham/tortilla roll up, or hummus/pita.

Once an order is entered, selections are prepared to be served by kitchen staff.  They found the program to be a good solution for K-6 parents as it gave them peace of mind knowing exactly what their student was receiving for lunch.  On the operation side of things, it streamlined production and staff really loved to feed students foods that they enjoy. The Picked at Home, Packed at School marketing initiative has successfully increased participation in the school meal program while appealing to parents, students and staff alike!

Two key elements of the pre-ordering program’s success was cafeteria staff buy-in and enthusiasm from program leaders. For example, “Let’s pilot this idea, then we will take a step back and modify, enhance or scrap with everyone’s input.  Let’s try it! We have nothing to lose.” Additionally, getting the word out to parents and the school community was important for program success. Posting on school media feeds, morning announcements, and email lists were all part of program promotion strategies.

The Cleveland district is also piloting an Endorsed Eats program. The offered foods are “endorsed” by students for taste and endorsed by the school dietician for nutritional quality!  This preorder service connects a couple of local eateries (who source their food locally) with the food service program. Endorsed Eats markets to high schoolers and staff who stay after school for athletics and extracurriculars who need hearty nutrition options for after school. Students and staff have an option of 4 items and the local eatery delivers them about 30 minutes after the last school bell.  Full nutrition profiles for the offerings are being prepared to provide to Endorsed Eats patrons.  

Preordering has been shown to be an effective strategy for nudging students to make healthier selections. School meal programs can consider preordering as one more tool to promote healthy options and participation while simplifying meal prep!


Katie Baildon, Cornell University 

Shannon FitzGerald, MS, RDN, LD, Fit TEXT, LLC


Reid, A (2010). Hot-state decision making: Understanding Consumer Emotion and Rationality. Sentient Decision Science

Hanks, A., Just, D., Wansink, B. (2013). Preordering School Lunch Encourages Better Food Choices by Children. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(7), 673-674. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.82

Miller, G., Gupta, S., Kropp, J., Grogan, K., Matthews, A. (2016). The effects of pre-ordering and behavioral nudges on National School Lunch Program participants’ food item selection. Journal of Economics Psychology, 55, 4-16. doi: 10.1016/j.joep.2016.02.010