How To Get Kids To Like Healthy Food Rather Than Just Eating It
Some food for thought.
Getting children to eat well is a challenge parents perennially face. And with the number of overweight and obese kids in the United States ballooning in recent decades, the stakes are higher than ever. According to CDC data from several years ago, over one-third of American children fall into that category. As for a remedy, the CDC's recommendations include having them eat healthy foods to keep their weight down and reduce the risks of disease. But how to go about this, well, that's another matter.
Fortunately, a bunch of academics have been on the case, with a new study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology being the most recent effort on this front. A team of researchers at the University of Bonn wanted to see how packaging affects children's perception of food. As expected, they found that kids like cute cartoon characters and a fun product name. (There's a reason why Tony the Tiger inspired generations to gobble up Frosted Flakes.) But the packaging that the food came in also made a difference. When snacks — in this case, yogurt and cereal treats — came in attractive packaging, children liked them better on average than when the same snacks were offered in plain packaging. So it seems healthy food manufacturers ought to steal a page from the junk food playbook by using packaging for maximum appeal.
Another study, run at Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, found that the words used to describe a food can also affect its taste. In an article on NBCnews.com, lead researcher Brian Wansink describes how this insight could be used to trick kids into eating vegetables simply by making them sound more enticing.
In the study, a group of preschool-aged children ate up all their broccoli when they imagined themselves to be dinosaurs consuming a "dinosaur tree." Another group, choosing from a buffet with name cards for each vegetable, preferred "power peas" at twice the rate of plain old green peas, and when an uninspiring vegetable juice was offered as a "Rainforest Smoothie," it was a hit. The key, writes Dr. Wansink, is to "use the child's frame of reference to create a positive mental association."
That's a good start, for sure, but there have got to be other strategies parents can employ. "The key for parents is to get kids to like healthy foods, not to eat healthy foods," says Dr. Jennifer Orlet Fisher, a Temple University professor who directs the Family Eating Laboratory at the Center for Obesity Research and Education, "because the eating will naturally follow the liking." Though Dr. Fisher, a specialist in the eating behavior of small children, didn't respond to an interview request, she did offer some practical tips on how to get kids to eat more vegetables in an interview with U.S. News & World Report:
One of the best ways to overcome children's timidity when it comes to trying new foods, Fisher says, is to give them a chance to experience them positively. One way is with "small exposures," by mixing in little amounts of vegetables with something they already like. Also, she explains, this needs to be repeated since it could take up to 10 or more exposures before a food starts to become appealing to a child.
2. Don't pressure or bribe
She calls this the "worst approach," which can backfire by allowing for short-term success that in the end will not make the food more desirable.
3. Eliminate competition
To introduce a new healthy food, Fisher recommends not offering it along with something more attractive. For instance, before dinner some cut-up vegetables with a dip can gently coax them beyond their culinary comfort zone when there's no other option nearby.
4. Be enthusiastic
This is another way to engineer a positive experience around the food, says Fisher — just eat it in front of the kids, with gusto.
5. Get them involved
Lastly, she advises having kids take part in cooking a meal, gathering vegetables from a garden and even growing the food. This can bring about more positive associations, making vegetables more enticing, or at least tolerable.
In the worst case scenario, if none of the above suggestions work, there's still hope that a child will outgrow their pickiness as they get older and their palate becomes more sophisticated. As a kid, the only vegetable I found acceptable was string beans, and I was firmly committed to that for years. But I changed, and now vegetables make up a large part of my diet, without any parental prodding.
Cover image via iStock.