More School Lunch Fruits and Vegetables Are Being Thrown Out by Kids

What parents can do at home to reverse this trend

healthy school lunch
Kids are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables at school if they get them at home. Steve Debenport/Getty Images

When policymakers decided to make school lunches healthier for kids, they probably were hoping for a better outcome than this: According to a new study by researchers at the University of Vermont, the amount of fruits and vegetables that are being thrown out by kids at lunchtime has actually increased since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) mandated in 2012 that kids in the National School Lunch Program to take either a fruit or vegetable as part of their meal.


The researchers' objective was to find out whether consumption of fruits and vegetables increased or decreased following the 2012 mandate. They found that as much as 56 more cups of fruit and vegetables are being thrown out by kids each day since the mandate went into effect. Not only did kids not eat more fruits and veggies (consumption of fruits and vegetables actually decreased slightly), but food waste increased significantly. "What was startling was the increase in waste," says Sarah Amin, PhD, MPH, a researcher in Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont and lead author of the study.

Dr. Amin and her colleagues went into two elementary schools in the northeast to track what 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders were eating. Over a period of 10 visits before the 2012 mandate, the researchers took pictures of almost 500 kids' lunch trays before and after lunch to see exactly what had been eaten.

Then they repeated the experiment for nearly twice as many trays after the mandate was in place. Their findings clearly showed that while kids were taking more fruits and vegetables because they had to, they were throwing them right out, often without even tasting them.

What We Can Learn from This Study--and How to Make Healthy Lunch More Attractive to Kids

While this study was limited to lower-income households in two schools, there are lessons to be had by all parents.

For starters, says Dr. Amin, this is a great example of how important it is for parents to model healthy eating and expose kids to fruit and vegetables. And while these kids were 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders who had developed eating habits and were likely throwing out the healthy food because they weren't used to it, other studies have shown that when healthy foods are introduced to younger kids in 1st through 3rd grade, their consumption of these foods go up.

The message is clear: Schools and parents can't expect kids to suddenly change eating patterns and habits without some other efforts and guidance to get them to want to eat healthy foods. Some suggestions to encourage kids to eat more fruits and veggies:

Get kids involved in school gardens and farm-to-school programs. Evaluations have found that kids with the lowest fruit and vegetable consumption increased their intake substantially with these programs, according to Dr. Amin. Another benefit is the educational component. "These programs educate children about sustainability and where foods come from," says Dr. Amin.

Set up taste testing tables in school cafeterias. From tables that have stations where kids are taught different ways to cook vegetables to sampling stations (like those in supermarkets) where kids can try various fruits and veggies and different dips, a little creative marketing can go a long way toward making healthy foods more enticing for kids.

Ask kids what they ate at school and what they thought about it. "Have an honest and open conversation and ask kids, 'Did you take and eat an apple?'" says Dr. Amin. "Ask kids to tell you what they liked about what they ate at school and talk about how to make it at home."

Model fruit and vegetable consumption. Kids are more likely to eat something if they see mom, dad, and their siblings enjoying it.

Be mindful of peer pressure. A school cafeteria or classroom at lunch can be a hotbed of tough social pressures. Your child may have something healthy in a packed school lunch from home or have some veggies on his tray. But if his friends are saying things like, "Ewwww, you're eating cauliflower for lunch?" then your child is less likely to eat that food. Work with your child's school and teachers to get the message to kids about how delicious fruits and veggies can be and help kids focus on positive messages about healthy food.

Be patient and keep offering. Don't expect your child to love broccoli overnight. If your child refuses to eat fruits and vegetables, keep finding creative ways to offer the foods (and never underestimate the power of dipping in sauces or yogurt). She may say no to a food 50 times and then suddenly, decided that she wants to try it and loves it. In the meantime, find ways to tweak your child's diet to make it more healthy, such as by cutting down sugar, swapping unhealthy breakfasts for healthier morning choices, and cooking and eating dinner together as a family.

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