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Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, PhD

“Making healthy options appealing and easy to choose offers the potential to increase children’s acceptance of them in restaurants,” says Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, PhD.

Placemats Can Help Promote Healthy Eating Among Children

Published August 28, 2017

Placemats can be used to encourage children to eat healthier food in restaurants, according to a new study led by Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics

“These results suggest that restaurants can help promote healthier eating among children by featuring healthier items more prominently on materials that are viewed prior to ordering.”
Assistant professor of pediatrics

“Many families eat food from restaurants on a regular basis, with research suggesting that children tend to consume less healthy foods in these settings compared to home,” says Anzman-Frasca.

“In this study, our goal was to feature healthier children’s meal options prominently to see whether this could affect children’s orders and intake.”

Placemats Increased Chances of Healthier Selections

Researchers used placemats, known mostly for quirky games and local business advertisements, as a tool to promote healthier menu options in fun and engaging ways.

While hot dogs and chicken tenders remained the meal of choice for most of the 4- to 8-year-olds who participated in the study, the placemats helped convince some children to choose healthier options such as turkey on whole wheat bread or a peanut butter and banana sandwich. Children exposed to the placemats prior to ordering were more likely to choose healthier food options compared to a control group.

“These results suggest that restaurants can help promote healthier eating among children by featuring healthier items more prominently on materials that are viewed prior to ordering,” said Anzman-Frasca. 

“Making healthy options appealing and easy to choose offers the potential to increase children’s acceptance of them in restaurants. At the same time, there is room for future efforts to build on the current results, aiming to normalize healthy options in restaurants further and nudge even more children toward healthier choices.”

Conducting Research at Local Restaurant Chain

Anzman-Frasca and fellow researchers studied 58 children (and their parents) within one location of Anderson’s Frozen Custard, a quick-service restaurant chain in the Buffalo Niagara region, in the fall of 2016. 

The families were each given a voucher to return to the restaurant once during a randomly assigned two-week period. Upon returning to the restaurant, half of the children were given a placemat promoting two healthier children’s meals as “Meals of the Day.” The meals were listed alongside fun names and images, as well as activities such as a word search. The rest of the children were in a control group and received no placemats.

Children who were exposed to the placemats before ordering were significantly more likely to order healthier food options. Eighteen percent of the children in the placemat group ordered one of the featured healthier entrées, compared to 7 percent in the control group.

The groups did not differ in the likelihood of ordering dessert or healthier beverages.

The children who ordered the healthier entrees consumed less saturated fat across the total meal compared to those who did not.

Award for Best Presentation at SSIB Conference

Anzman-Frasca presented the findings in July at the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB) conference in Montreal.

She received the Timothy J. Bartness Award, which is given for the best oral presentation by a junior faculty member at the annual meeting.

The award honors the memory of Timothy J. Bartness, PhD, an internationally recognized researcher of the neural control of adipose tissue, obesity and ingestive behavior.

The SSIB is committed to advancing scientific research on food and fluid intake and its associated biological, psychological and social processes.

Co-Authors Include Division Chief, Students

Co-authors of the study from UB are:

  • Abbey Braun, a student in the Graduate School of Education
  • Sarah Ehrenberg, a biomedical sciences student
  • Lucia A. Leone, PhD, assistant professor in the School of Public Health and Health Professions
  • Anita Singh, project coordinator in the Department of Pediatrics 
  • Sara Tauriello, research assistant in the Department of Pediatrics
  • Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of pediatrics and chief of the Division of Behavioral Medicine

April Gampp, from Independent Health Foundation, is also a co-author.