The Basics of Smarter Lunchrooms

In the previous post, we mentioned the Theory of Constraints as a strategy to prevent children in a lunchroom from choosing higher-calorie drinks and to steer them, unawares, toward the lower-calorie alternatives. Today’s post takes a more comprehensive look at this theory.

Several years ago, supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics turned its attention to child nutrition and created the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement with several purposes in mind — to improve student eating behaviors; reduce food waste; and increase sales — and to accomplish these ends without incurring extra costs to the institution.

The underlying philosophy is the “nudge.” In theory, if healthier choices are easier to see and easier to reach, humans will opt for what is, in essence, low-hanging fruit. Part of the objective here is to build on basic human instincts. For instance, many of us have received the advice to never grocery-shop when hungry, because we will make unwise purchases, and too many of them. Likewise, cafeteria employees are advised to place the most nutritious food items in positions to be encountered before the not-so-good stuff, on the theory that hunger will spur the students to pick up the first thing they see.

One tenet of the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement (SLM) is that its principles apply not only to school lunchrooms, but to restaurants, food courts, and even domestic kitchens. Another is that eating habits are influenced by environmental cues. In all, there are 60 low-cost or cost-free strategies, which boil down into six major categories:

— Manage portion sizes

— Increase convenience

— Improve visibility

— Enhance taste expectations

— Utilize suggestive selling

— Set smart pricing strategies

The University of California is one of the teaching institutions that can send technical assistance providers to schools across the country. When they arrive at a school that has requested their expertise, one of their suggestions is to turn an area of the lunchroom into a Nutrition Corner, where colorful charts, graphics and other informational material can be displayed.

The placement of “clear, clean, and colorful” signage containing useful nutrition information is a top priority. One of their creations is a handbook that supplies a year’s worth of 10-minute workshops for busy staff members.

Action for Healthy Kids is an organization that educates school administrators and staff about the need for these services. Institutional change is not always a top-down proposition. This group urges parents, workers, and educators at any level to bring the SLM ideas to the attention of higher-ups, in case they have not heard, or possibly have been exposed to the principles but disregarded them. This group says,

Smarter lunchrooms reinforce healthy eating and nudge kids toward nutritious foods by using evidence-based, lunchroom-focused principles to promote healthy eating. Smarter lunchroom makeovers can involve changes as simple as hanging student artwork or rearranging food in your cafeteria to encourage students to eat more of the foods we want them to eat (like fruits and veggies).

The site has a link to the Smarter Lunchrooms Self-Assessment Scorecard, to provide evidence of need for change in certain areas.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Smarter Lunchrooms Movement (SML),”, 2016
Source: “Smarter Lunchrooms Movement,”, 2020
Source: “Smarter Lunchrooms,”, 2019
Image by Cornell University

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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