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'Smarter lunchroom' may lead to healthier choices

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FRIDAY, Feb. 22 (HealthDay News) -- A few simple and inexpensive changes to school cafeterias can help encourage children to eat healthier foods at lunch, a new study finds.

The changes included improving the convenience and attractiveness of fruits and vegetables (such as placing fresh fruit in nice bowls or tiered stands next to the cash register) and having cafeteria staff prompt children to choose fruits and vegetables by asking them questions such as, "Would you like to try an apple?"

The "smarter lunchroom" makeover took no more than three hours in one afternoon and cost less than $50, according to the researchers at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, in Ithaca, N.Y.

The program was tested in the cafeterias of two junior-senior high schools (grades 7 to 12) in western New York. After the makeover, students were 13 percent more likely to select fruits and 23 percent more likely to take vegetables, according to the study, which was published Feb. 22 in the Journal of Pediatrics.

When researchers recorded what was left on trays after lunch, they found fruit consumption had increased 18 percent and vegetable consumption rose 25 percent. The likelihood that students would eat whole servings of fruits or vegetables increased 16 percent and 10 percent, respectively, they said.

This low-cost, effective approach could help combat rising rates of childhood obesity in the United States, said study author Andrew Hanks. Last year, the U.S. government introduced regulations to make school lunches more nutritious. But children can't be forced to eat these healthier lunches.

The "smart lunchroom" makeover "not only preserves choice, but has the potential to lead children to develop lifelong habits of selecting and consuming healthier foods even when confronted with less healthy options," Hanks noted.

These changes could also prove effective in the cafeterias of hospitals, retirement homes, businesses and other organizations, he suggested