Students Staff

03 October 2014

Competitive streak could drive children to eating healthier

school dinners

Competition can help children eat more healthily

Introducing a competitive edge at school meal times could increase the number of children eating fruit and vegetables by up to a third, according to research involving Essex.

From this September, children in Reception and Years 1 and 2 across England have been offered free school meals as part of the Government’s Universal Infant Free School Meal Programme.

Yet whilst schools are legally required to provide meals that comply with the School Food Standards to ensure that children get the nutrition they need, parents and teachers know the challenges of getting children to actually eat fruit and vegetables.

According to the World Health Organization, poor diet in many developed countries is the primary cause behind the rising cost of healthcare and related to three of the five highest mortality risks in the world: high blood pressure, high blood glucose and obesity.

The research, led by the University of Bath, along with colleagues at Essex and the University of Edinburgh, showed how an element of competition could be used to incentivise healthy eating behaviours. The study, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, was published today by the University of Bath’s Institute for Policy Research.

Dr Jonathan James, from the University of Bath, said: “Through our research we found that introducing an element of competition at lunchtime could have larger effects on children’s eating habits than using an incentive scheme that was based only on their own choices. By using a different approach, we found that the proportion of children trying fruit and vegetables could be increased by up to a third.”

Dr Patrick Nolen, from Essex, added: “Interestingly, unlike in other work on competition, we find girls – rather than boys – respond more favourably to the competitive incentive. This means that girls, who generally eat more healthily than boys, increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables even more under our new incentive.”

The researchers conducted a randomised controlled trial in 31 schools involving over 600 pupils in years 2 and 5. Two incentive schemes (individual based and competition) were compared to a control group, where no incentives were provided. In both incentive schemes pupils were given a sticker if they chose a portion of fruit or vegetables at lunch time, or brought it in their packed lunch.

Pupils in the individual scheme were given an additional reward, such as a highlighter pen, on each Friday if they had collected four or more stickers over the week. In the competition scheme pupils were randomly assigned into groups of four where the pupil with the most stickers was given an additional reward.

The researchers found that boys responded to both competitive and individual schemes, while girls mainly responded to the competition. 

The researchers monitored the dietary choices of children at lunchtime over a period of six weeks, with interventions carried out in two-thirds of participating schools. The remaining schools carried on as normal so as to provide a comparison where no intervention took place.

They now hope that the results of their findings can be taken on by policymakers and health officials looking to improve the dietary choices of young people across the UK.

·         The study, Incentives and Children’s Dietary Choices: A Field Experiment in Primary Schools is available on the University of Essex website.


Note to Editors 

For further information please contact the University of Essex Communications Office on 01206 872400 or email

Esmée Fairbairn Foundation

Esmée Fairbairn Foundation aims to improve the quality of life for people and communities throughout the UK both now and in the future.  We do this by funding the charitable work of organisations with the ideas and ability to achieve positive change. 

The Foundation is one of the largest independent grant-makers in the UK.  We make grants of £30 - £35 million annually towards a wide range of work within the arts, education and learning, the environment and social change.  We also operate a £26 million Finance Fund which invests in organisations that aim to deliver both a financial return and a social benefit.


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