The CAN Approach to Healthier, Smarter Lunchrooms

Healthy Food Choices in Schools August 15, 2017 Print Friendly and PDF

CAN Approach Cartoon

Dr. Brian Wansink, director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab has been studying eating behavior and food psychology for decades. Through his extensive research, he has found three key methods for nudging healthy choices at home, in grocery stores, in restaurants and in schools. It’s called “The CAN Approach![1]”  CAN is an acronym for Convent, Attractive, and Normal. Numerous Food and Brand Lab studies have found that making healthy food more convenient, attractive, and normal to eat, results in higher consumption of healthy foods and lower consumption of unhealthy foods.

Below are some ways that this approach can be applied to school lunch lines to increase selection and consumption of the National School Lunch Program meal components (healthy entrees, fruit, veggies and white milk).[2]

Healthy Entrees




  • Highlight entrée options on an attractive menu board
  • Give entrees enticing, descriptive names (see the video).



  • Make the healthiest entrée option the “featured entrée” of the day
  • Create combo meals that pair entrees with healthy sides

Fruits and Veggies



  • Label fruit and vegetable dishes with creative, age appropriate names. Here are some ideas from the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement: Give Vegetables Creative Names.
  • Display whole fruit in baskets or attractive bowls instead of chafing dishes


  • Use self-serve utensils that hold the appropriate portion size (larger for veggies and smaller for dressings)
  • Pre-plate trays with the featured vegetable side 



  • Stock white milk in front of sugary beverages 
  • Make white milk the easiest to reach


  • Brand white milk with fun stickers


  • Fill all coolers with at least 1/3 white milk
  • Keep coolers replenished so they always appear full

For more resources for featuring fresh vegetables click here!

For more information:

CAN Approach:

Additional lunchroom tips: PDF

Related Articles:

Introducing the New Smarter Lunchrooms Scorecard for Assessing Lunchroom Successes

Serving Up Sliced Apples: Wayne County, NY Schools, Cornell Cooperative Extension and Regional Food Bank Make It Happen

Slice It Up: Serving Pre-Cut Fruit can Increase Fruit Consumption

Tiny Tasty Tree Tops: Study Shows that Giving Vegetables Attractive Names Increases Their Popularity among School Children


Katherine Baildon, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs


[1] Wansink, Brian (2015). Change Their Choice! Changing Behavior Using the CAN Approach and Activism Research. Psychology & Marketing, 32(5, 486-500. DOI: 10.1002/mar.20794

[2] (2014). Smarter Lunchroom Self-Assessment Scorecard. The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs. 

Photo by Brian Wansink / CC BY


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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.