There might be something to be said about the lure of the lunch lady (or lad).
And not the type of lunch lady that plops a big pile of sloppy joe meat on your plate and says, "I made 'em extra sloppy for yas!" No, the kind that can carefully curate a menu for kids she cares about.
A new study from Harvard University in JAMA Pediatrics found that kids would eat better if every school had a chef overseeing its recipes and menus.
With 32 million children in the U.S. eating school lunches, it's critical that school cafeterias provide healthier options — and that doesn't mean hiding some vegetables under a blanket of cheese on a slice of pizza.
There has been a nationwide movement to bring healthier food options to schools, but this specific study tested out how incorporating professionally trained chefs would affect how kids eat. They found that, for the most part, chefs improved the taste of healthy meals, which significantly increased students' consumption of fruits and vegetables.
The First Lady's Chefs Move to Schools program and the Smarter Lunchrooms movement have emphasized two new ways of bringing healthier fare to students: by hiring chefs to work in school cafeterias, and by something they call a "smart café" system, which strategically places healthy foods like fruits and vegetables more prominently in lunch lines.
To test each method, as well as both of them together, the researchers visited 14 elementary and middle schools in two urban, low-income school districts in Massachusetts. For eight months, they observed what 2,638 students in grades three through eight ate at lunch.
The schools had been randomly assigned so that some received weekly training and recipe design from a professionally trained chef; some focused solely on the placement of healthy food; some did a combination of both; and the control schools received no intervention. The researchers examined what was left on the students' plates in order to determine what and how much of their food they were eating.
Unsurprisingly, when kids were offered broccoli in a delicious-looking soup instead of in a thick glob of indistinguishable greens, they tended to eat more of the healthful food, said Juliana Cohen, lead author of the study.
At the schools with chefs, the chances that the students selected fruit from the lunch line increased threefold compared to schools without a chef's influence, and the odds that they actually tried some fruit increased by 17%. Researchers saw similar reactions to vegetables; students in the chef schools were almost three times as likely to choose vegetables, and 16% more likely to actually eat them.
And the schools that received both smart café and chef intervention did only a little bit better than the schools with chef alone.
What the results show is that smart architecture and strategic placing of healthier foods is not enough to get kids to eat them. But having a chef's influence over the school menu can certainly do the trick.
"Our goal was to have a chef who could work with the whole school district to train personnel and to design more palatable recipes without increasing the cost of the meal," said senior author Eric Rimm, in a press release. It was a great success and really illustrated that through persistence, school-aged children can learn to like healthy whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, especially if they taste good."
Cohen told TIME that she doesn't see hiring full time chefs as a practical option for most school districts considering their budgets, but does suggest having several districts pool their resources to share a chef for training and nutrition education. However, it is important to note that some schools in the study actually saved money during the trial period because the chefs brought the staff their knowledge of inventory control and efficient use of supplies.
Of course, there won't be a single easy fix to make school lunches more healthful — especially since each school functions differently from the next — but this study shows us that, among kids, taste is the most important. They want to be able to make their own choices. So, if something looks good to them, they'll eat it. And if they like how it tastes, they'll continue to eat it.