How to easily get your kids to want healthier food

Children, Nutrition
battered chicken

What influences children’s eating habits?

Many parents want their children to eat more healthy food, but struggle to find an effective way to do it. Shouting, wheedling and bribing don’t work, or only work for a short period of time. We feel they are influenced by television, their friends or just engage in a power-struggle with us. But there is a solution. That solution varies depending on the age of your child.

Fortunately, there are three pieces of research that can give you the insights you need to help your children enjoy healthy food.

Getting young child to eat vegetables

We know that vegetables are good for us, but a lot of children don’t wnat to eat vegetables.

The first is research on three to five-year olds. The study is published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. In the study, Lanigan and her colleagues wanted to see if statements that t simply convey the benefits of healthy food would influence their choices.  Before beginning, the 87 children in the experiment ranked how much they liked four foods chosen from different food groups including, green peppers (vegetable), tomatoes (vegetables), quinoa (grain), and lentils (protein). The children were then offered two of the foods they liked the least twice a week. Over the six-week experiment, the researchers presented the children one of their low-rated foods with information about the benefits of the food. The other food was merely given to them to taste.

A month later the children were eating twice as much of the food that was accompanied by positive information compared with the food that was just served to them with no comment.

watermelon child eating

The phrases were chosen to represent accurate nutritional information, but in a way that reflected the goals of three- to five-year-old children. So, for example, when lentils were given, the researchers would tell the children that this will help you grow bigger and run faster.

Another study looked at repeatedly offering young children a choice of vegetables. Children were served a small piece of vegetable three times a week for five weeks. A sticker was given as a reward to children trying a vegetable. One group just offered one vegetable (broccoli) and the other group offered a choice of three vegetables ( broccoli, zucchini/courgette and peas). The strategy of offering multiple vegetables to the children was the most successful, at increasing the children’s consumption of vegetables.

Yet another study found that both the mother and the father need to set a positive example in eating vegetables, fruit and berries for  3-5-year-old children. This was particularly true for cooked vegetables.

More time means more fruit and veggies eaten

Melissa Pflugh Prescott, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois conducted a study with elementary- and middle school-aged children enrolled in a summer camp. She found:

When kids sit down to eat lunch at school, fruits and vegetables may not be their first choice. But with more time at the lunch table, they are more likely to pick up those healthy foods. If we want to improve children’s nutrition and health, ensuring longer school lunch breaks can help achieve those goals, according to research from the University of Illinois.

So, that’s how to tempt young children to eat more healthy food, but what about teenagers?

How to get teenagers to eat more healthy food

Many teenagers love junk food and will eat it to excess and turn their noses up at salads. Parents are often at their wits end. A research project by Christopher J. Bryan and others from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business has found that a simple and brief intervention can provide lasting protection for adolescents against the harmful effects of junk food marketing.

Food marketing is deliberately designed to create positive emotional associations with junk food and to connect it with feelings of happiness and fun. The researchers went into classrooms and taught groups of students about the way junk food manufacturers try to hook consumers on addictive junk food for financial gain. Control groups were given factual information about healthy food.

The students were followed over three months. The girls ate less junk food regardless of whether they were in the experimental or control groups. For the boys the marketing expose was much more effective; they reduced their daily purchases of unhealthy drinks and snacks in the school cafeteria by 31 percent in that time period, compared with the control group.

So regardless of your child’s age you can try these strategies to get them to eat better, but remember to use the age-appropriate strategy.

(c) 2019 Jane Thurnell-Read

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