Grocery store and restaurant marketers have often used subtle tricks to get us to buy what they want us to buy. Placing certain products at eye level, assembling foods in pretty baskets, dollar menus, and 2-for-1 deals are all simple ways that marketers use to get us to notice certain foods first in the hopes that we'll select them.

These strategies have been so successful in the private industry that now the government wants in on the act. Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it will give $2 million to food behavior scientists to find ways to use psychology to improve kids' choices in the federal school lunch program and to fight childhood obesity.

Roughly one-third of school-aged kids are obese or overweight, and school administrators have been struggling to find ways to improve school lunch programs to help alleviate the problem. Still, bans on soda and junk food have backfired in some places. Some students have abandoned school meal programs that try to force-feed healthy choices. In my own school district, when cafeteria managers tried to sneak in pizza with whole-wheat crust, pizza went from being the most popular item on the menu to the least.

Schools just want a way to help kids choose healthier fare without having to beat them over the head with their veggies. Enter the food behavior scientists. Researchers at the child nutrition center at Cornell University have been looking into nutrition "incentives" for years and have found many that offer success.

Here are a few of the ideas that your own school cafeteria may try soon:

  • Keep ice cream in freezers without glass display tops, so the treats are out of sight.
  • Move salad bars next to the checkout registers, where students linger to pay, giving them more time to ponder a salad.
  • Start a quick line for make-your-own subs and wraps
  • Hide the chocolate milk behind the plain milk
  • Require cash only for desserts
  • Place fresh fruit in pretty baskets near the checkout line
Related on MNN: Our food blogger weighs in
Schools turn to psychology in the lunch line
USDA announces $2 million grant to research food behavior incentives that will improve student choices in school cafeterias.