You can lead a child to healthy food, and they may even place it on their lunch tray, but you can’t make them eat it. That’s what researchers found when they watched children eating lunch in a school cafeteria.

New guidelines for school lunch programs were unveiled several years ago, requiring schools to offer healthier meals. The idea was that if children were offered more healthy options at school— more fruits and vegetables — they would eat them.

Perhaps most telling is the fact that children were more likely to eat when their food was cut into smaller pieces and when they had more time to eat.

To see how well the plan was working, researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health watched as children in kindergarten through second grade selected from the cafeteria offerings for lunch in one elementary school. They took pictures of the students’ lunch trays to document what they chose and what they actually ate.

The results were somewhat disturbing. Most (75 percent) of the kids chose the lean protein that was offered, almost 60 percent took a fruit and a vegetable. Of those who chose the lean protein, only three-quarters took a bite of it, and less than a quarter took a taste of their chosen vegetable. All of the children selected a milk product and a whole grain.

Sadly, much of their food ended up in the trash can.

“We have been thinking that if young children choose healthy food, they will eat it, but our research shows that is not necessarily so,” Susan Gross, a research associate at Johns Hopkins, said in a statement.

Less Noise, More Time, Better Nutrition
What did make a difference in how well the kids ate was the environment in the cafeteria. The researchers found that the noise level, the presence of a teacher, the number of kids in the classroom, how long children had to eat, and the way the food was packaged all played a role in how much the kids actually ate.

Students were likelier to eat more of all their food if a teacher ate in the cafeteria with them. A quieter cafeteria resulted in better consumption of vegetables and whole grains, though noise didn’t seem to affect how well other foods were eaten. And perhaps most telling is the fact that these children were more likely to eat when their food was cut into smaller pieces and when they had more time to eat.

According to Dr. Gross, “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.

“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.”

The association between good nutrition and learning has plenty of studies to support it, but if the cafeteria environment is having an adverse affect on what school kids actually eat, then perhaps we need to pay more attention on how to improve that environment.

The research was presented at the American Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting in New Orleans.