Despite offering healthier options and making them "more convenient" than less healthy alternatives in the lunch line, a new study found that kids still are not eating what has been deemed good for them as much as adults would like.
Research conducted by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health included observations of 274 students kindergarten through second grade at 10 New York City schools. As students passed through lunch lines where a chicken and vegetable meal was offered as an entree, researchers took before-and-after photos of trays to keep tabs on what was getting put onto their plate and what was actually being consumed.
While 75 percent of students picked the protein, 58 and 59 percent, respectively, chose a fruit or vegetable. Of those who had the protein on their tray, 75 percent took a bite of the chicken, while only 24 percent tried even a nibble of their vegetable.
"We have been thinking that if young children choose healthy food, they will eat it," Dr. Susan Gross, one of the researchers with the university, said in a statement. "But our research shows that is not necessarily so."
But why not?
The study authors also measured the noise level in the cafeterias as well as factors such as supervision, how many students were present, length of lunch time and how foods were presented.
Students who had a teacher eating in the cafeteria with them were more likely to finish their lunches, while a quieter environment resulted in more vegetables and whole grains being consumed. More food was also eaten when it was cut into smaller pieces and when more time was given for lunch, according to the research.
"As much as we are focused on menus in the school lunch program, we need to look more at our cafeteria environments, especially with our youngest children," Gross said. "We can give kids the healthiest food possible, but if they don't have time to eat it or they are distracted by how noisy the cafeteria is, they're not going to eat it. They're on their own and we need to do as much as possible to help them through that lunch period."
These findings will be presented Monday at the American Public Health Association's Annual Meeting in New Orleans.
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