By Lori Meszaros, Nutrition Communications Student at ASU
Google how to get your kids to eat healthily and you’ll get over 6.5 million results. With all of these brilliant ideas on how to get kids to eat, why are we still struggling to get our kids to make healthy choices?
Psychologists have found that children’s rejection of unfamiliar food is related to what is known as neophobia, a fear or dislike of anything new. Research supports that when your little one refuses to eat, let alone try a vegetable, it stems back to one of the human’s evolutionary adaptations. Ancient humans knew they needed a range of nutrients, but lacked the knowledge of which foods could potentially contain toxins. For children, all food is initially new and possibly dangerous. Their refusal to try something new may seem more pronounced when it comes to not eating enough fruits and vegetables.
While there are endless things you can do to encourage healthy eating, here are just a few simple tricks research has demonstrated may work for some of the pickiest of eaters.
Monkey see, monkey do
Kids are notorious for mimicking behavior, and it’s no different for eating. Research has shown that parents who don’t have healthy eating habits themselves struggle to encourage healthy eating habits in their kids. Kids will model their behavior after their peers and parents, and if you’re not eating carrots sticks for a snack, it will be hard to convince your little one to do the same. Start encouraging healthy snacking by eating what your offering, and let your kids start dipping veggie sticks into their favorite dressing. Hummus is a tasty and healthy dip, and so is peanut butter dip.
It’s ok to pay
A recent study published in Journal of Health Economics demonstrated that paying elementary school kids to eat one serving of fruit or vegetables at lunch increased the amount of fruits and vegetables consumed by 80%. The researchers found that even the smallest incentive ($0.05) was enough to get kids to eat the healthy stuff, and even after the incentive was taken away the kids continued to choose healthier options at school.
So why not pay your kids to eat healthy at home? Even celebrities like Heidi Klum have confessed to using these tactics to get their kids to drink smoothies or eat healthy snacks. Trying this approach helps your child acquire the taste for foods they may be reluctant to eat, and research supports that repeated exposure to foods increases their likelihood of acquiring the taste.
Don’t be afraid of the sweet stuff
Humans prefer sweet and salty foods to bitter and sour. Over time we begin to develop tastes for new foods. It has been shown it can take 8-15 times of trying a new food before you accept it, and children are no different.
When offering a new vegetable to your child, start with the sweeter ones like carrots, beets and, sweet peas. Even some varieties of cucumbers are sweet! Another trick is to sprinkle a little sugar or salt on the veggies. This helps enhance flavor, and you don’t need a lot as long as you sprinkle it on just before serving instead of during cooking; that’s because the sugar or salt hits the tongue first, tapping into their preference to eat sweet and salty foods and that will increase the likelihood of your child eating the vegetable.
My own trick– My kids refused to eat salads (this was before I learned about paying them) so I made a simple sweet lemon dressing from lemon, olive oil, Dijon mustard and maple syrup. They turned that down the first few times, so I tried straight honey drizzled over lettuce and cucumbers. They loved it! After eating salads with “honey dressing” for a while I went back to my sweet lemon dressing. No turned up noses or pushed away salad plates anymore. I exposed them enough that they soon liked eating salads.
Start off small
Food waste is a big issue and can cause stress at dinner time. Research has shown that the number one reason parents give in to buying foods their kids prefer over more nutritious foods is because of food waste. Offering smaller “samples” of new food can help reduce the amount of food your child wastes.
Serving sizes can be confusing. A simple guide to fruits and vegetables is ¼ cup is roughly the size of an egg, ½ cup is the size of half a baseball and 1 cup is the size of a baseball. A serving of broccoli for a child is about 5 florets, for carrots, a serving is about 6 baby carrots or 1 medium carrot. Offering them just one broccoli floweret or one baby carrot to start developing their taste is a good start and better than them not eating vegetables at all.
Make food fun
Pinterest has great ideas to make cute food, but who has the time to get that creative for every meal? So let them eat with their hands or make an entire meal that has to be eaten with tooth picks. Kids love eating with their hands and sometimes they may need to touch the food before they’ll consider eating it.
Eating with your hands is practiced in many cultures around the world, and can make meal time more fun and a positive experience when they feel like they get to ‘play’ with their food. Of course, there is a time and place for table manners, but when exploring new foods, letting your kids use their hands may actually encourage them to try something they would normally just push aside with their fork.
If you liked this article:
Connell PM, Finkelstein SR, Scott ML & Vallen B. Helping lower income parents reduce the risk of food waste resulting from children’s aversion to healthier food options: Comment on Daniel. Soc Sci Med. 2016;150:286-289.
Daniel C. Economic constraints on taste formation and the true cost of healthy eating. Soc Sci Med. 2016;148:34-41.
Loewenstein G, Price J & Volpp K. Habit formation in children: Evidence from incentives for healthy eating. J Health Econ. 2016;45:47-54.