Back to top

Eat Your Broccoli

September 16, 2019

Turning somersaults, offering bribes, slathering peanut butter over celery — how to get children to eat their veggies? Kids rarely resonate to the concept of “healthy” eating. But recent research suggests two unique approaches — one for the younger kids, one for the teens — that may help parents promote healthier food choices. 

In a series of experiments with 225 American children, researchers offered youngsters between the ages of 5 to 9 bowls of blueberry-pear fruit sauce.1 The kids were given three different descriptions of the sauce before they were allowed to select what they preferred: as healthy (“it has a lot of healthy ingredients; it will make your muscles and bones get strong”), as unhealthy (“It does not have healthy ingredients; it will not make your muscles and bones get strong”) and as neutral (“It has a lot of ingredients; you can buy it at the grocery store”). When the healthy and unhealthy options were set before them after hearing the descriptions, the children opted for the healthy option. When the neutral and unhealthy options were presented, they opted for the neutral option. But when presented with the neutral and healthy options, they reached for equal amounts of each, suggesting that what motivated the children’s selection was avoiding the unhealthy option. That’s what parents should casually talk about: how unhealthy food choices work against the body’s growth and strength.

To influence teenagers, research suggests appealing to two particular values that teens frequently embrace: autonomy from adult control and social justice. In one study,2 some participants read an exposé-style article explaining how shrew corporations manipulate young people, through advertising, to find junk food appealing. Other participants read traditional educational material about the benefits of healthy eating. The group exposed to the corporate manipulation perspective afterwards was found to hold more negative attitudes about junk food than the traditional education group. Among the boys exposed to the corporate manipulation material, there were 31% fewer purchases of unhealthy food and drink in the school cafeteria over the subsequent three months (an effect curiously not observed among girls). 

These studies mitigate the discouragement and powerlessness many of us feel when it comes to influencing our children’s dietary habits (see Picky Eaters). Instead of preaching about healthy eating, let’s speak to those values that seem to shape young people’s perception of the foods worth putting into their mouth. 

References & Citations

DeJesus, J. M., et al. “How information about what is ‘healthy’ versus ‘unhealthy’ impacts children’s consumption of other identical foods.” Journal of experimental psychology: general. April 11, 2019.
Bryan, C. J. et al. “A values-alignment intervention protects adolescents from the effects of food marketing.” Nature Human Behaviour, (3) 596–603 (2019).