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Get Kids to Eat More Veggies with Less Talk, More Action

Eating vegetables

We try all sorts of methods to get kids to eat their vegetables, but it turns out that there is really just one simple way for our children to eat more healthful foods. They need to see us do it first.

We often try to persuade our kids to eat vegetables by telling them that it will make them healthier, taller or stronger. But unfortunately, despite our best intentions, this method can backfire. In a kids mind, says Dr. Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago, they feel that if a good is “good for you” it means that it cannot possibly taste good.

Dr. Fishbach studied 270 preschool-aged children, ages three to five, and found that children ate more of a food when it was presented without commentary or when it was presented simply as tasty.

Think about it. Think of the last time you sat down to a salad or a plate of broccoli and said, “I have to eat this for my (heart, weight, blood pressure, etc.)” We send a message that we are doing something we don’t like to do, but rather are “forced” to. Kids notice this.

Previous research has found similar results. At La Troube University in Australia, when mothers pressured children to eat more fruit, the children actually ate less of it at two years of age. However, those mothers who set a positive example by consuming fruits and vegetables in front of children had children who consumed more themselves.

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The best way to foster healthy eating habits is to inspire the entire family to get a new attitude toward healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables.

The next time your family sits down to dinner – and yes, the first step toward healthful eating is for the family to eat together as much as possible – simply offer a plate of healthful food without pressuring your children to eat it because it is “good for them.” Make conversation about other things – their day, their friends, what you are doing that weekend – and just have a pleasant meal.

Of course, some children do need encouragement, so make the plates colorful and fun. It’s okay to use dip or some cheese sauce if it will help your children eat the more healthful food underneath.

You may also want to get kids excited about fruits and vegetables by playing games that the entire family can be involved with – New Fruit Friday, for example. Or during grocery shopping, have your child pick out one or two items from the produce aisle that you will fix that week. Have your kids involved in food preparation. Grow your own vegetables in your backyard. Visit a farmers market.

Just be sure that fruits and vegetables are treated as simply something that happens every day, like brushing your teeth or taking a bath. If it is a habit for you, it will become a lifelong habit for your kids.

If it’s Useful and You Know it, Do You Eat? Preschoolers Refrain from Instrumental Food
(In press, Journal of Consumer Research, October 2014)