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The Role of School Food Service Staff in Children’s Eating Behaviors

As school food service staff, we serve countless meals and offer a variety of foods to the children we serve. We have read about studies that show that students who participate in the school meal programs consume more whole grains, milk, fruits and vegetables during meal time and have an overall better diet than non participants. In addition, those that participate in the school breakfast program have better attendance rates, fewer missed days of school, and better test scores. Especially for low-income students, school lunch is critical to student health and well-being. The food environment in schools plays an important role in shaping children’s food choices and behaviors. But, as the faces in school food service, what is our role in fostering children’s eating behaviors? What is the best approach to presenting foods to children? How much should we encourage children to eat certain foods? What makes a child a healthy eater?

Ellyn Satter, is a Registered Dietitian, Family Therapist, and internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding children. She has pioneered several feeding models that are the gold standard for evidenced-based approaches to feeding children. She defines healthy eaters as children who are able to take care of their food needs in a positive and matter-of-fact way. They feel relaxed, comfortable, and behave well around food and at mealtimes. They are able to enjoy many foods, try others, and politely turn down others. They are able to rely on their feelings of hunger and fullness to know how much to eat.

Children are naturally skeptical about new foods and cautious eaters. This is especially true the younger the child. ‘New’ foods can be a food that they haven’t seen before, a familiar food prepared in an unfamiliar way, or even by someone they don’t know doing the cooking. Yes, that means us! Children learn to eat new foods by having repeated exposure (even when they don’t consume them the first time - try, try, again!), by seeing their friends eat, and by tasting foods many times (sometimes politely spitting them out the first time or two).

To help foster healthy eating behaviors in children, Ellyn Satter offers these guidelines to school foodservice staff.

  • School nutrition personnel can pleasantly greet children by name. Children eat better when the eating environment has supportive adults being friendly, but not ‘managing’ their eating. Smile and pleasantly engage with students. Avoid comments that judge their food choices, the quantity they eat, or their body size.

  • Offer food choices. Children need to feel in control of their eating and eat better when they can pick and choose from foods that are available and have control over whether - and how much - to eat. They need the freedom to turn down food they don’t want and the reassurance that they don’t have to eat something they have taken. They benefit from knowing they can taste a food and decide not to finish it. When children know they won’t be forced to finish the food, they are more likely to experiment with new foods. Children do not eat better when they are forced, coaxed, or bribed.

  • Make food appealing to children. Adults may eat food because they don’t want to waste it, because they know the food is good for them, or to keep from getting hungry later. Children rarely eat for these reasons, but rather because they are hungry and it tastes good. Providing attractive and well prepared food is important in allowing children to eat well.

  • Trust children eat the amount their bodies need. Children have bigger appetites some days and less on other days. They are erratic day-to-day eaters, but their intakes over the average of days tends to be what they need to eat to grow. Children are more likely than adults to stop eating when full rather than when the food is gone. Putting pressure on children to increase food acceptance or decrease food waste will backfire.

  • Encourage politeness. Children benefit from learning to be respectful of others feelings - whether those feelings are about food presented, or their friends’ preferences for certain foods. “Gross” and “Yuck” comments should be discouraged. They need to learn to turn down food politely and not comment on others food choices.

The overview of these guidelines is that our role is to provide a variety of attractive, wholesome foods in pleasant surroundings and work with administration to encourage a positive mealtime environment. Our kitchen’s, and how we present food to children, plays a significant role in the relationship children have with foods and their eating behaviors. As school food service professionals we should value the privilege, purposefully carry out, and take pride in our role as a key component in fostering a whole child’s well being.


  1. Fox MK, Gearan E, Cabili C, et al. School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, Final Report Volume 4: Student Participation, Satisfaction, Plate Waste, and Dietary Intakes. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Policy Support; 2019. https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/resource-files/SNMCS-Volume4.pdexternal icon

  2. Kinderknecht K, Harris C, Jones-Smith J. Association of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act with Dietary Quality Among Children in the US National School Lunch Program. JAMA. 2020;324(4):359-368.

  3. Murphy JM, Pagano MR, Nachmani J, Sperling P, Kane S, Kleinman RR. The relationship of school breakfast to psychosocial and academic functioning. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, 1998;152:899–107.

  4. Murphy JM, Pagano M, Bishop SJ. Impact of a universally-free, in-classroom school breakfast program on achievement: Result from the Abell Foundation’s Baltimore Breakfast Challenge Program. Boston, MA: Massachusetts General Hospital; 2001.

  5. Murphy JM, Drake JE, Weineke KM. Academics and Breakfast Connection Pilot: Final report on New York’s classroom breakfast project. Albany, NY: Nutrition Consortium of New York; 2005.

  6. Myers A, Sampson A, Weitzman M, Rogers B, Kayne H. School Breakfast Program and School Performance. Am J Dis Child, 1989;143:1234–9.

  7. https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/

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