This Is How You Get Healthier Meals in Schools

Give school chefs a free healthy cookbook.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and First Lady Michelle Obama have been crusading for years to get healthier meals in schools. But how do you actually translate that down to your own town? It’s one thing to see the efforts on television, but it’s a whole other ballgame to actually get a healthy initiative implemented at your local school. Now, a new study led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) found a better way: have the schools collaborate with a professionally trained chef.

By improving the taste of healthy meals at schools, more kids will eat their fruits and vegetables, and where you place these items also makes a significant impact on what foods the students will select. That’s the premise behind a new study led by researchers from HSPH, which was published online Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. The study is “the first to examine the long-term impact of choice architecture and chef-enhanced meals in school cafeterias on selection and consumption of healthier foods,” according to reps from HSPH.

“The results highlight the importance of focusing on the palatability of school meals. Partnerships with chefs can lead to substantial improvements in the quality of school meals and can be an economically feasible option for schools,” said the study’s lead author Juliana Cohen, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH, in a statement. “Additionally, this study shows that schools should not abandon healthier foods if they are initially met with resistance by students.”

The school-based study was a randomized clinical trial conducted during the 2011-2012 school year. Fourteen elementary and middle schools were chosen. The schools are located in what HSPH says is “two urban, low-income school districts in Massachusetts,” comprising of 2,638 students in grades three through eight.

According to the study:

The schools were randomly assigned to receive weekly training and recipe design from a professionally trained chef; some received choice architecture techniques (referred to as “smart café”); some received both; and the rest (control schools) received no intervention.

After three months of exposure to the chef intervention, students selected 8% more vegetables than students at the control schools. After seven months, students in the chef intervention were 20% more likely than control school students to choose a fruit and 30% more likely to choose a vegetable. Their consumption of these foods — meaning how much of the selected items were actually eaten — increased by similar percentages.

After four months, smart café students increased their vegetable selection over control students by about 17% and fruit selection by 3%, but consumption didn’t improve. There was no significant change in selection or consumption of white milk over chocolate milk. The schools with combined smart café and chef intervention fared only modestly better than the schools with chef alone.

“Our study was not testing whether a local celebrity chef was good for the school lunch program. 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 the study’s senior author Eric Rimm, professor in the Departments of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard Chan, in a statement. “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. In the end, the quality and taste of the food was much more impactful on consumption than were the effects of choice architecture.”

The chef-created recipes are included in the free cookbook Let’s Cook Healthy School Meals, which can be downloaded here.