We have discovered more than 100 changes that lunchrooms can make to nudge students to eat better. For instance, if you show a kid three consecutive pans of vegetables--green beans, corn, and carrots--they’ll take 11 percent more of whatever vegetable is in the first pan. It doesn’t matter what it is. They’re hungry, and what’s first looks best. To help schools visualize how they could go through their lunchrooms and make a bunch of low-cost/no cost changes, I wrote an infographic editorial for the New York Times.[i] One teacher said she even printed this out for her students and had them color it in class. High school math class just isn’t what it used to be.
Shortly after the op-ed was published, a television producer wanted to film us doing a before-and-after Smarter Lunchroom Makeover of a middle school. Why a middle school? Apparently elementary students act too random in front of TV cameras (remember that picnic for squirrels?), and most high schoolers aren’t photogenic enough for television--too many strange clothes, weird hair colors, piercings, and uninterested looks. The TV people wanted us to find a middle school that would do a total lunchroom makeover for less than $50--and film it all MTV-style.[ii]
After finding the perfect middle school and watching students eat lunches for a week, we isolated ten changes we could easily make for less than $50 total that would probably help them eat better without even realizing it--things like changing the location of the fruit, giving fun names to healthy foods, moving the cookies behind the counter, putting the vegetables first, and so on. The food service director and producer were cool with the changes, so we got to work.[iii]Twenty-five kids were hand-picked to be secretly filmed by three hidden cameras. We hid cameras in a ceiling tile, a hat, and even in our fake water bottle. Everything was set--and then came the catch. We were asked, with the cameras rolling, to predict the sales for each food item.
After lunch was over, the smoke cleared, and the dishes washed, we were able to calculate just what had happened. The makeover was a nutritional victory--kids took a lot more salads, fruit sales doubled, white milk sales went up 38 percent, sugary drinks sales dropped by 17 percent, and they ran out of the healthy bean burritos--renamed Big Bad Bean Burritos--for the first time ever. These kids ate an average of 18 percent fewer calories, and they ate better than they typically did.[iv]
What didn’t work was putting the cookies behind the counter. We thought this would decrease sales by 30 percent, but it did nothing. Even worse, we predicted that moving vegetables to the front of the line would increase sales by 11 percent, but it instead dropped by 30 percent.[v]What happened?
A little bit of sleuthing showed that cookies were the cafeteria’s big “destination food.” They were five inches of hot, freshly baked gooey goodness--the main reason some kids ate school lunch. Wild horses couldn’t have pulled these kids away from the cookies without pulling them away from eating lunch there altogether.
The vegetables were a different story. As I mentioned, our lab studies showed that lunchgoers were 11 percent more likely to take whatever vegetable they saw first compared to whatever they saw third. Well, that’s true when three vegetables are in the middleof the serving line, but here we put them in the frontof the line. Nobody scoops up a plate of green beans and then looks for the entrée that goes with it. People pick out the entrée and thenthe vegetable. They didn’t want to take a veggie until they knew what they were having for a main course.
When the interview got to this point, the producer asked, “You’ve been doing eating research for twenty-five years. Sales didn’t increase by 11 percent, they dropped by 30. Why were you so far off?” I said, “Well, if we always knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research.” (He seemed amused enough by this answer to not report these missed predictions in his story.)
Still, nailing five out of seven predictions was pretty decent. Our prediction report card wasn’t straight As, but it was better than the report cards I got in high school. Most important, we were able to show in real-TV-time how only $38 and two hours of tweaking made a bigger difference than hefty expert commission reports.
Where should a school start? Start with the Smarter Lunchroom Movement Checklist below and choose three easy changes to get the ball rolling. When we sit down with the food service directors and managers, we specifically tell them what they’re doing exceptionally well. We then mention that these are some other ideas they can consider, but we ask them to pick no more than three. Some schools want to try everything, but while ambition may soar in the heat of the moment, when it comes to implementation, making more than three changes can seem so overwhelming that often nothing gets changed. Focus on three and save the rest for later.
The Smarter Lunchroom Starter List
When we do Smarter Lunchroom makeovers, it’s easy to find ten or more easy changes a lunchroom can make overnight or over a weekend for less than $50. Yet for most, even making a couple small changes can have a dramatic impact. Here are easy changes we’ve designed to get you started:
To Increase Fruit Sales . . .
Display fruit in two locations, one near the register
Display whole fruits in a nice bowl or basket
Employ signs and suggestive selling to draw attention to the fruit
To Increase Vegetable Sales . . .
Give them creative/descriptive names[vi]
Display the names on menu boards and at point-of-purchase
To increase White Milk Sales . . .
 Place white milk first in the cooler
 Place white milk in every cooler
 Make sure fat-free (skim) white milk accounts for at least 1/3 of all milk displayed
To Increase Healthy Entrée Sales . . .
 Make the healthy entrée the first or most prominent in the lunch line.
 Give the targeted entrée a creative or descriptive name
 Feature it on a menu board outside the cafeteria
To Increase the Number of Complete Healthy Meals Sold . . .
 Place key meal items at the snack window2
 Move chips and cookies behind the serving counter and offer them by request only
 Create a healthy-items-only “grab and go” convenience line[vii]
A Full Description of How to Make Your Lunchroom a Smarter Lunchroom can be found in the free chapter below (Chapter 6 in Slim by Design), and additional resources can be found at this link.
[i] A nice visual of lunch line redesign is titled just that: Brian Wansink, David R. Just and Joe McKendry (2010), “Lunch Line Redesign,” New York Times, October 22, p. A10 .
[ii]The specific show is the MTV-owned show called Channel One. It’s a hip, almost too-cool-for-school program that actually is for school. It shows a 10-minute news feature every morning during homeroom to 5 million kids in America – typically those in the big cities.
[iii]The video of this can be found at SmarterLunchrooms.org. Thanks to the Ithaca Food Service Director, Denise Agati for making this happen and sticking with the changes.
[iv]This is a great two-part (before/after) video with a lot of energy, good lessons, and some modest laughs. You can find it at YouTube at healthymeals.nal.usda.gov/healthierus-school.../lunchd-part-one and the “after” version at healthymeals.nal.usda.gov/healthierus-school.../lunchd-part-two
[v]This works great in the lab, but that’s when you have three vegetables in a row: Brian Wansink and David Just (2011), “Healthy Foods First: Students Take the First Lunchroom Food 11% More Often Than the Third,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Volume 43:4S1, S8.
[vi]These changes can be so easy even a high school kid could do them. We showed that by having a high schooler we never met implement a vegetable naming program 200 miles away from us.
[vii]Nothing makes it easier to choose the right food than when it’s convenient. Here’s some great tips here: Andrew S. Hanks, David R. Just, Laura E. Smith, and Brian Wansink (2012), “Healthy Convenience: Nudging Students Toward Healthier Choices in the Lunchroom,”
I hope this doesn’t come across wrong, but I actually had a New Year’s resolution last year that worked.
One of my resolutions for 2021 was to join a rock or R&B band, which seemed like a big goal since I hadn’t really played the sax for about 25 years. Back then a boss I really admired had told me it wasn’t appropriate for a professor to play saxophone in a rock band because it “sent the wrong message to students.” Although I didn’t agree, I subconsciously found myself dutifully playing less and less until three months later I had stopped altogether.
Since I didn’t have any students to send wrong messages to last year, I figured it was safe to again take the rock 'n soul plunge. Although I enthusiastically suck as a musician, I figured if any band gave me a shot to play, they would never fire me for not obsessively practicing and trying hard enough. And they also wouldn’t fire me for smoking all of their weed, or throwing a TV out of hotel window, or ODing on heroin in the back of a tour bus. They might fire me for enthusiastically sucking but not for the other stuff. A Motown-like band called the X’Plozionz gave me a shot.
This is Spinal Tap is a hilarious rockumentary spoof about a fictional rock band (Spinal Tap) where everything goes wrong. My first gig was the remake of the Spinal Tap movie. It was July’s Cortland County Fair. We played on a flatbed trailer, and our opening act was the 4-H Animal Judging competition. That’s where you win a Blue Ribbon if you raise the county’s fattest turkey. Since barnyard animals can’t tell time, everything ran late. And since barnyard animals don’t ask where the nearest restroom is, they conveniently used the dance floor as their bathroom. Some people were dancing and trying to wipe off their feet at the same time. Others were doing the Gangnam Style horsey dance in honor of the opening act.
News of our animal-friendly show got around. We blinked and we had recorded a Live at Budokan album. We blinked again and we were the first American band to perform at Eurovison.
Actually neither of those happened, but this month we did get named as the What’s Hot in Syracuse band of January 2022 (and also What’s Hot in the Finger Lakes). The magazine is on newsstands and an earlier draft of the story is posted below.
It’s another New Year for us. I hope you have incredibly great fortune in making your New Year’s Resolutions and goals come true this year.
See you at Eurovision!
The X'Plozionz!!! The Rock and Soul Party Band of the Finger Lakes
(Story from What's Hot (Syracuse Edition) January 2022 pp. 10-15)
When the lead singer of a band looks like a defensive tackle for the Buffalo Bills, three things happen. People stop, look, and listen.
First, they STOP talking. Second, they LOOK and see his firecracker red suit and matching red glasses, Fedora, and shoes. Then, they LISTEN to this “All Pro” performer when he snatches his microphone and begins channeling the singing voices of everyone from Wilson Picket and the Temptations to Rick James and Bruno Mars.
Mr. E Hunner is the dedicated front-man singer of one of the funkiest, eclectic Rock & Soul show bands in the Finger Lakes. “The X’Plozionz!!! have been around for about 10 years,” said Hunner, “We went dormant because of COVID. Now we’re back, and we’re bigger and badder.”
When the band’s beloved drummer passed away during COVID, the band wanted to honor his aspiration to move from being a fun party band to being "the Rock and Soul show band of the Finger Lakes." “To put on that kind of show we needed the right mix of people, songs, and places to play,” said Hunner.
The Right People
Along with Hunner, The X’Plozionz!!! are anchored with long-time bassist, John Busch, widely known in Central New York as an owner of the original Third Rail in Cortland and former bass player for the eclectic “Eddy’s Basement” band back in the 80’s. Caine Davenport – the youngest band member at 25 – was brought on as the lead guitarist because of his versatility. He elaborates, “Motown songs have a dance kick and need to be note-for-note like they sound on the record. But then the next minute you need to be able to play a crazy rock solo for Sharp-dressed Man or Radar Love. Then I'll need to do another change-up and play a jazzy-type solo for something like Crystal Blue Persuasion or I Can't Go For That.” Busch added, “A lot of guitarists can rock out, but to find someone like Caine who can also play with discipline, precision, and finesse was key . . . plus he sings.”
Next came the return of singer-keyboardist-guitarist, Steve Giocondo, who had left the band years before to write music and perform as a solo act. “His keyboard work give us that big sound. It fills out some songs and gives other songs a real rocking rhythm,” said Busch.
The two rookies in the band are drummer, Drew Martin, who was previously with Holy Smoke, and saxophone player, Brian Wansink, a recently retired Cornell professor. “Drums and horns were really the two things that helped the Motown Sound really pop,” said Busch. “They put the icing on the cake.”
The Right Songs
Martin’s big drum bang opened The X’Plozionz!!! recent lounge show at the Tioga Downs Casino and Resort. Martin and Busch kicked off the song Boogie Shoes and then settled into it’s toe-tapping, head-nodding groove while the microphone stand stood empty. After two minutes of grooving, it was time for the crowd to stop, look and listen.
From the side of the stage, Mr. E. Hunner appeared, gyrating and finger-snapping. His red Boogie Shoes dance-stepped to the beat as he funkily dance-stepped to the microphone. When he cooly arrived, he snapped his head to the audience, snatched the mic, and shot his finger high in the air until the downbeat. Then, at the very instant he belted out the opening line of the song, he dropped his finger to point at the audience, as if he insisted they put on their Boogie Shoes and dance. And dance they did.
Hunner’s a show unto himself. His spins, his moves, and his gestures all echo the classic stage showmanship of Motown charisma. He continued grooving and spinning with funky, fun versions of Knock on Wood, Play that Funky Music, and Come and Get Your Love before handing off his magic microphone to Giocondo and then Davenport who changed the pace with Brown Eyed Girl and Jenny Jenny (8675-309).
Giocondo said, “Because we have three singers, a keyboard, and a sax, we can play a lot of dancing fun songs that other bands can’t play. One minute we'll be playing some 80s stuff like Baker Street or Maneater, and the next minute we'll light it up with Kung Fu Fighting or Uptown Funk.”
The Right Places
“We’re having a blast, and they're having a blast, Giocondo continued. "It doesn’t matter where we are – casinos, county fairs, dance clubs, weddings, or company parties – we’re going to do everything we can to make sure people have a legendary good time.”
“I love to see a table of people laughing and pointing at each other as they're singing along to Super Freak. I love seeing strangers all of a sudden spontaneously start a Congo line to Love Train, or a seeing a wedding party of grandkids and grandmas line-dance to Uptown Funk. And I really crack up seeing people in suits or tuxedos doing Karate moves when we play Kung Fu Fighting.
"They’re spending time and money to be here with us. We're going to make darn sure they look back and say, “I had a great weekend.”
Here's an easy New Year's Resolution: Trick yourself into eating better.
You can easily set up your kitchen (and some habits) that lead to eat better or less. But since you will know what’s going on, you won’t have to feel tricked.
Quartz used this "Trick yourself" title for a catchy story on my Cornell Food and Brand Lab colleague, Aner Tal. It’s about 3 minutes long and has a lot of eye-opening tips and insights. What’s unusual is how Aner describes why these work in a suave James Bond style and how Quartz cleverly illustrates them. Too cool for school.
Here’s some of what they mentioned:
1. Use lighter plates
2. Use smaller plates
3. Cut your food into pieces
4. Don’t watch TV when you eat
5. No scary movies
6. Don’t shop when you’re hungry (you don't buy more, you buy worse)
7. Deprivation always backfires
Some of these might sound pretty basic, but it’s Aner's description of how they work and Quartz's funny illustrations that really make them pop.
Aner flew out to visit me from Israel a while back, and we were talking about how people react after they hear about some of these discoveries.
Some people hear about suggestions like these and say to themselves “That would never happen to me,” so they don’t try to do anything different, and nothing changes in their life. Other people say to themselves, “Yeah, that makes sense” but they never do it, so, again, nothing changes in their life.
No one is going to hear about 7 discoveries and make 7 changes in their life. It’s too much. But you can make 1 or 2 of them. After they become habits, you can always come back to the table for another course.
Here are some tips, tricks, and secrets on how you and your family can be healthier and happier. They're based on over 30 years of our published research.
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