The “Trigger” Effect: Certain Foods May Trigger Kids to Buy or Avoid Junk Food

boy choosing cookie or apple

Students typically walk past a wide assortment of food options as they proceed through the lunch line to buy meals at school—and the foods they pass on the way can actually impact what they wind up buying. Researchers at the Cornell Food & Brand Lab call these items “Trigger Foods” because they may actually trigger kids to purchase certain other foods further down the lunch line. This influence can occur even without students buying the Trigger Foods themselves; their presence alone seems to impact food choice.

Researchers Andrew Hanks, David Just, and Brian Wansink went into New York state schools to take a deeper look at the link between specific side items and the snack foods that kids purchased. They found that 2 different types of “Trigger Foods” impacted the sales of cookies, ice cream, and Debbie snacks:

  1. “Positive Trigger Foods”
  • These foods improved health and cause kids to buy fewer unhealthy snacks
  • Green beans decreased the number of cookies purchased
  • Bananas decreased the number of ice cream bars & Little Debbie Snacks purchased
  1. “Negative Trigger Foods”
  • These foods triggered kids to buy more unhealthy snacks
  • Applesauce and fruit cocktail both increased sales of cookies, ice cream, and Little Debbie snacks during lunch

The researchers say that the triggering effect could be a result of priming; sides like green beans and bananas may remind kids of health and lead them to avoid junk food, while sweet sides like applesauce and fruit cocktails may cause kids to seek out other sugary snacks.

Although these specific trigger foods may be unique to the schools where the study took place, the triggering effect could play a role in every cafeteria line. Increasing the number of healthy side options may not lead kids to buy those individual foods, but it could cause kids to avoid sugary snacks and make overall healthier choices on the lunch line. Simple rearrangement of items, such as placing healthy snacks in the most convenient locations in attractive displays, can also help nudge kids towards better food choices.


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


Hanks, A., Just, D., & Wansink, B. (2012). Trigger Foods: “The Influence of “Irrelevant” Alternatives in School Lunchrooms.” Agricultural and Resource Economics Review.