Smile for a Healthy Lunch

A simple smiley face or a tiny treat can positively influence kids' choices.

Girl carrying tray in school lunch room
XiXinXing / Getty Images

If you've ever texted with a tween, then you know all about the power of the smiley face. Emojis and emoticons that grin, cry, giggle, and gasp are essential communication tools. So why not put those smiles to use in school cafeterias to help kids make smart, healthy choices?

Researchers in Cincinnati tested this plan in one city school's lunchroom by posting green smiley faces alongside the most nutritious foods: fruits, vegetables, fat-free milk (white, not chocolate), and entrees featuring whole grains. Sure enough, kids responded by putting those foods on their trays much more often. Plain milk went from just 7 percent of total milk sales to 48 percent. Impressively, vegetable selection jumped by 62 percent.

The same research team also tried another intervention to encourage healthy eating. They renamed nutritious meals (those containing a fruit, a vegetable, a whole-grain entree, and low-fat milk) "Power Plates" and offered kids a small reward for choosing them. The prizes, including stickers and erasers, were very small and inexpensive, yet they successfully motivated big changes in kids' lunchtime behavior.

Smiles Are (Almost) Free

Fewer than 10 percent of students chose the Power Plate meal prior to the introduction of prizes. But when the school offered daily prizes, more than half the kids went for the Power Plate. Even when prizes were cut back to twice a week and then discontinued, close to 40 percent of the students were still ordering the Power Plate. "It looks like we found a very promising, low-cost and effective way of improving the nutrition of elementary school children," reported Robert Siegel, MD, the study’s lead author and medical director of the Center for Better Health and Nutrition at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Another method that helped prompt kids eat more vegetables? A banner wrapped around the school salad bar (this was discovered in a different study). Simple, yet effective. Higher-tech methods also work. The same study that tried using salad-bar banners also made some videos starring cartoon vegetables. Kids loved them and vegetable selection went way up. 

These studies didn't double-check whether kids actually ate the healthy foods they picked, but we know from other research that when students are exposed to nutritious options, they do eat them—and like them.

Smiley Face Power at Home

If you pack your child's lunch, she won't necessarily choose what's in it, but she will choose what she actually eats! Draw a smiley on the lid of her applesauce container or baggie of baby carrots to send a subtle message about smart choices. Or toss in a sticker or other small prize with her healthy sandwich as an occasional surprise.

At dinnertime, try a smiley-face chart to track daily servings of fruits and vegetables, or to celebrate new (healthy) foods kids have tried. In the mornings, drop blueberries in the shape of a smile onto a pancake or slice an apple into half-moons. While I'm not a fan of elaborate food sculptures designed to "make food fun," the occasional funny-face breakfast is easy to do and can start your day on the right note.

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Article Sources

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  • Hanks AS, Just DR, Brumberg A. Marketing Vegetables in Elementary School Cafeterias to Increase Uptake. Pediatrics 2016;138(2)e20151720.