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Preordering lunch increases healthy entree selection in elementary schools

We all know that buying food when we are hungry is a recipe for disaster. When we are hungry, we can be especially sensitive to sights and smells of foods that will satiate, but may lack in nutrient content. What if we could make our meal choices when we are full, and not anticipating the feeling of satiation we all enjoy? Would we make healthier choices? Researchers at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (B.E.N. Center) set out to test whether or not preordering lunch would nudge students make healthier entre choices.

Lunch pre-order form

In two upstate New York elementary schools, students use an electronic pre-ordering system to order lunch in the morning. Fourteen teachers agreed to enroll their classes in a four-week study to test the effects of pre-ordering lunch. These classrooms were randomly assigned to one of three experimental conditions: 1) stop preordering for the 3rd week and resume for the 4th week, 2) stop preordering for the 4th week, or 3) continue preordering for all four weeks.

What did the sales records report? A significant number of healthier choices were made when students pre-ordered lunch. When preordering was available, 29.4% of students ordered the healthier lunch entre compared to 15.3% when no preordering took place. When ordering in the lunch line, hunger mixed with the aromas and sight of unhealthy foods won out in spontaneous food decisions: healthy entre selection was reduced by 48% and less healthy entre choices increased by 21%.

Further details on the study

This is great news! In school, preordering can help students make healthier choices in entres. Simply by changing the decision environment, students were nudged to select healthier entres. Even though schools in this study used an electronic pre-ordering system, paper-based systems can be just as effective, and less costly. Either system provides an effective method to help students make more health conscious decisions at lunch.


Contact: Sandra Cuellar
Cornell Food & Brand Lab

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