As any parent knows, getting kids to eat vegetables can be a herculean task. It’s also one worth undertaking because of the role vegetables can play in living a healthier life.

With that end goal in mind, Associate Marketing Professor Joe Redden and a team of University researchers partnered with a local school district that had been previously unsuccessful in its attempts to increase vegetable consumption and turned a cafeteria into a laboratory.

Standing behind the lunch counter offering vegetables to unreceptive grade schoolers during a logistics test, Redden realized explicit and direct efforts to teach kids the benefits of vegetables weren’t going to work.

“We decided to take a different route in the idea of nudges,” recalls Redden. “How can we change the situation such that kids still have free choice, but we’re encouraging them to choose vegetables more often of their own will?”

After testing larger portion sizes that led to an increase in overall consumption but not a greater adoption of vegetable eating across more children, the researchers tried an approach that Redden has used in his own home—serving vegetables first and in isolation.

“If I’m a kid and I see green beans versus chicken nuggets, green beans are never going to win,” says Redden. “So let’s stop putting green beans next to other good things.”

In one study, hungry kids discovered cups of vegetables awaiting them as they arrived at the cafeteria or were standing in line. Without any encouragement or messaging, the researchers saw the number of kids choosing vegetables jumped from less than 10 percent to three, four, and even five times that rate.

“Clearly it’s not that kids won’t ever consider vegetables,” says Redden. “Instead, you can do it in a more subtle manner where they almost feel an obligation of ‘You’ve given me this gift of vegetables. I should eat a little of it.’ Sure enough, we found that they would eat some under those conditions.”