When it comes to helping students develop healthier food habits, science says being mindful of external food cues—not dieting—is key. In fact, research shows eating environments play a major role in the food choices we make—for better and for worse.
The good news for helping students make the most nutritious choices is that “[you can] set up your environment so that it helps you eat better,” says Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, and a leading researcher on how environmental cues affect our food choices.
The core of the philosophy is simple, says Dr. Wansink: “Change the convenience, the attractiveness, and how normal it is [for students] to eat the right foods.”
Here are eight ways to make it happen on your campus.
1. Shine a spotlight on nutritious foods.
“If you’re going to have food visible, make it [healthy] food,” says Dr. Wansink. We’re three times more likely to eat the first food we see than the fifth food we spot, according to a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, so work with campus food vendors to put the healthiest items front and center. For example, stock vending machines with the healthiest choices at eye level and stash the not-so-nutritious picks in the corners.
2. Make unhealthy choices less accessible.
Where possible, eliminate unhealthy items from campus menus entirely. A 2014 study of university students found that even when healthier items, such as rice, were offered alongside less healthy items, like fries, many students continued to gravitate toward the unhealthy choice, according to the findings published in BMC Public Health. If you must have junk food on or near campus, make it as inconvenient for students as possible.
3. Make healthy choices more affordable.
Putting healthier choices in front of students won’t matter if they can’t afford them. Work with vendors to subsidize the cost of nutritious picks and allow high prices on junk food to serve as a deterrent. The BMC Public Health study also found that when nutritious options were free to students, they were much more likely to choose them.
4. Stock personal portions.
Stock campus convenience stores and snack spots with individually portioned snacks—not big bags of chips. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that eating out of a larger container led participants to eat up to 50 percent more.
5. Promote portion control in the dining hall.
The size of the bowl or plate we use is important too. The smaller the bowl, the less you’re likely to eat, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, which found that students who served themselves from a large communal bowl ate double the normal portion size. In campus cafeterias and dining halls, limit the use of large serving bowls by setting up smaller food stations where students can serve themselves from smaller containers.
6. Streamline food spaces.
Messy spaces tend to stress us out, which could lead us to reach for more sweet snacks, suggests a 2016 study published in the journal Environment and Behavior. Keep this in mind when designing eating areas on campus to keep cafeterias and eating spaces as clean and organized as possible.
7. Choose the right container.
Behavior scientists at Google found that the simple act of placing office candy in an opaque container versus a clear jar made a huge difference in how much employees consumed (they ate fewer M&M’s® over a seven-week period). In offices and buildings that students frequent, such as counseling and health centers, place healthy picks, such as fruit and nuts, in glass jars and bowls, and put the candy in a dark container—or eliminate it entirely.
8. Sip smarter.
The same principles apply to beverages available to students. Keep sugary sodas in inconvenient locations, if they’re offered at all, and make plain water more convenient and readily available on campus. Consider adding glass coolers filled with water and sliced fruit to eating spaces to promote healthier sipping habits.