'Lentils will make you run faster': How to get kids to eat healthy food

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

If you want your kids to eat their greens try telling them it will make them run faster.  That's according to a new study which found that using "child centred nutrition phrases" resulted in kids consuming healthier food.

"Every child wants to be bigger, faster, able to jump higher," said Associate Professor and lead author Jane Lanigan. "Using these types of examples made the food more attractive to eat."

That's right, affirming statements like "eat your lentils if you want to grow bigger and run faster" were more effective at getting kids to make healthy food choices than presenting the food repeatedly without any conversation.

As part of the study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour researchers offered a group of 87 children aged 3-6 years healthy food for six weeks. At the beginning, kids were asked to rate how much they liked four foods chosen from different food groups including green capsicums (vegetable), tomatoes (vegetables), quinoa (grain), and lentils (protein).

Over the study period they were offered two of the foods they liked the least, twice a week. One of the foods was presented with pre-selected age appropriate facts about the benefits of the food. The phrases focused on goals children have and were based on accurate nutrition information. (Yep, no making things up!)

The other food was just given to them to taste, in line with previous research showing that offering foods repeatedly (also known as repeated exposure) increases the likelihood that kids will try something new.

The researchers then measured how much the kids ate at three different time points: before the test, after the test and one month after the study ended.

And the results are worth a ponder.

Immediately after the test there were no differences, most likely, Associate Professor Lanigan says, because the kids "got sick of eating the same foods." But a subsequent test told a different story. "We found that a month later, the kids ate twice as much of the food presented with child centred nutrition phrases and repeated exposure compared to the food without the positive words," Associate Professor Lanigan said. "For example, when we presented lentils we would say, 'This will help you grow bigger and run faster."

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But why might that be the case? According to the authors, the intervention provided multiple experiences for children to become familiar with the food and explore it without the stress or pressure of an expectation that they would eat the food. "This positive food interaction may have led to increased willingness to try, improved liking, and consumption of the food," they note. 

Out of the lab, the findings have practical implications for families struggling to get healthy food into their little ones.

"I have two kids and I probably could have done things differently when trying to get them to eat healthier," Associate Professor Lanigan said. "We wanted to fill a gap, where parents are often told what their kids should be eating but not how to get them to eat it. And that's really important."

The bottom line is that dinner time conversations matter.

"Information that caregivers give children sometimes is inaccurate, ineffective, or developmentally inappropriate," the authors write. "This study supports the importance of mealtime conversations and the potential benefit of developing consistent phrasing for use across multiple contexts including the family, child care, and health care settings."

Accredited practicing dietitian and co-founder of HealthBank.io, Robbie Clark, agrees that using positive connotations and analogies about food are important when it comes to encouraging healthy food choices in our kids. "Far too often we hear parents using negative phrases that lead to children ultimately getting what they want," he says. "For example, 'You won't get dessert unless you eat all your broccoli' or 'You can't play with the iPad unless all the vegetables are eaten from your plate.'

But rather than teaching children about healthy eating, Clark explains that this strategy is more of a ploy to make parents feel better knowing their child is getting the right nutrition. (Guilty as charged.)

"When it comes to fussy eaters - children can't control what food is put in front of them or when it's offered," he says. "However, intake is one of the few things in their lives that they can actually control." According to Clark, rejection of food is a way young children establish their independence and the best way to embrace this is through positive reinforcement and education.

"By using positive communications and outcomes associated with food, it allows the child to a) learn the positive effects of healthy food, b) make informed decisions about food and c) form a healthy relationship with food," he says.