Lunch is one of the most important times in a child’s school day. It’s when social interactions unfold, food cues surround children, and lunch trays dictate the school district’s socioeconomic status. Researchers from Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health studied school lunches in order to improve students’ diets in a budget friendly way, and found trained chefs could be the answer.

“The results highlight the importance of focusing on the palatability of school meals. Partnerships with chefs can lead to substantial improvements in the quality of school meals and can be an economically feasible option for schools,” the study’s lead author Juliana Cohen, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School, said in a press release. “Additionally, this study shows that schools should not abandon healthier foods if they are initially met with resistance by students.”

The study, published in the Journal of American Medical Association, revealed the eating habits of more than 2,600 students from third to eighth grade from two low-income urban school districts. Professionally trained chefs were randomly assigned to schools in each district. They improved entrees and provided healthy rendition of fruits and vegetables prepared with spices and sautés using low-fat, low-salt recipes. Food presentation was also taken into consideration when setting out the food for students.

After each lunch period, monitors collected the food before children tossed it into the trash. Researchers weighed the quantities of food the kids took and the amount that was left on their plate that was on its way to being thrown out. When kids were offered broccoli sautéed in garlic and olive oil or a constructed vegetable soup, they ate a higher percentage of healthier food than the kids provided with plainly arranged vegetables. It's no surprise that kids enjoy well prepared food as opposed to unappealing servings. But what is suprising is the cost for preparation outweighed the loss schools were seeing from lunch waste. Schools regularly throw away tons of food each day, but an improvement on quality can cause a ripple effect to a healthier student body and fiscally savvy districtwide budget.

Researchers found after three months, students didn’t change their dietary habits by choosing and eating more fruits and vegetables. However, after seven months they did, and once consumption improved, the results revealed a clear improvement in diet when certain food was bountifully available and prominently presented to children.

"What this study is showing is that this is an effective method to reduce plate waste,” Cohen told The Washington Post. "[Children] are going to like the foods and they're going to eat the foods. We didn't see the increase in consumption immediately. Schools shouldn't abandon healthy foods if students don't instantly [eat it].”

This isn’t a new discovery, but instead a newly tested theory. Cornell Professor and Food Scientist Brian Wansink found similar effects to school cafeteria habits by just changing a few variables to make the food seem more appealing. His research efforts led to the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, which found if schools added a salad bar that was positioned perpendicular to the school lunch line, vegetable sales would increase significantly. He also advised schools to buy attractive bowls to serve fruit in, and use certain lighting to improve food’s appearance. When schools took his advice and purchased new bowls, their fruit sales doubled. When they used an extra desk lamp to cast a spotlight on the food station, fruit sales rose by 186 percent.

"Efforts to improve the taste of school foods through chef-enhanced meals should remain a priority because this was the only method that increased consumption,” researchers wrote in the study. “This was observed only after students were repeatedly exposed to the new foods for seven months. Therefore, schools should not abandon healthier options if they are initially met with resistance.”

Source: Cohen JFW, Datz T, Patel MS, and Graff S. Collaborating with Chefs, Offering Choice May Increase Vegetable, Fruit Selection in Schools. Journal of American Medical Association. 2015.