MONDAY, March 23, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Getting a professional chef's input improves the fruit and vegetable selection in school cafeterias, leading students to eat more of those healthy foods, a new study finds.
"The results highlight the importance of focusing on the palatability of school meals," said the study's lead author, Juliana Cohen, a research fellow in the nutrition department at Harvard School of Public Health.
"Partnerships with chefs can lead to substantial improvements in the quality of school meals and can be an economically feasible option for schools," she said in a Harvard news release.
The study included more than 2,600 students in grades 3 through 8 at 14 elementary and middle schools in two urban, low-income districts in Massachusetts. At some of the schools, a professional chef taught school cafeteria staff how to improve the taste of healthy meals.
The schools also received advice about presentation, such as putting fruit in attractive containers, having vegetables at the front of the lunch line, and placing regular milk in front of chocolate milk.
After three months, students at the chef-assisted schools selected 8 percent more vegetables than those at schools without assistance. After seven months, students at the chef-assisted schools were 30 percent more likely to choose a vegetable and 20 percent more likely to choose fruit than those at other schools.
"Additionally, this study shows that schools should not abandon healthier foods if they are initially met with resistance by students," Cohen added.
However, there were no changes in entree selections or in consumption of regular milk over chocolate milk, according to the study published online March 23 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
About 32 million American students eat school meals every day. For many low-income students, school meals provide up to half of their daily calories, the researchers noted.
For the future health of these children, it's essential to balance good taste and nutrition, experts said.
"Childhood obesity is a national concern. Despite numerous efforts to improve the food consumption of America's youth, rates of obesity among school-aged children have not changed over the past decade," Dr. Mitesh Patel and Dr. Kevin Volpp, of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in an accompanying editorial.
They said the best ways to get students to eat healthier foods include making those foods taste better and improving their presentation.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more about children and nutrition.