How teaching young children about the benefits of healthy food encourages them to eat their greens
- Dr Jane Lanigan led the study from Washington State University in the US
- Three to five-year-olds were given green peppers, lentils, tomatoes and quinoa
- Children told healthy foods were good for them ate more of their vegetables
It is the classic last-ditch strategy for desperate parents whose children refuse to clear their plates.
But telling them to eat their greens so they will grow up to be big and strong may actually work.
Children told healthy foods are good for them, or will help them ‘run fast and jump high’, eat far more of those foods, a study found.
Researchers presented three to five-year-olds with green peppers, lentils, tomatoes and quinoa at school over six weeks.
More than half of four-year-olds remember being told that they should eat carrots because they help people to see in the dark
When children were repeatedly given the food they least liked, they ate an extra seven grams of it in one sitting. But they ate twice as much extra food after encouraging comments such as ‘lentils help you learn and help you grow’.
Dr Jane Lanigan, who led the study from Washington State University, said: ‘Every child wants to be bigger, faster, able to jump higher. Using these types of examples made the food more attractive to eat.’
Researchers asked 87 children to rate the raw green peppers and tomatoes, and the plain cooked lentils and quinoa using frowning and smiling faces.
Each child got one of their least liked foods presented to them twice a week with no comment made about it.
When they ate a second food they disliked, teachers said things like ‘quinoa makes you run fast and jump high’, ‘lentils help you learn and help you grow’ and ‘tomatoes keep you from getting sick and are good for your heart’.
Researchers compared how much children were willing to eat of the foods before and after the experiment.
For the food they were repeatedly given to eat, children ate around seven grams more of it a month after the study ended. But they ate twice that extra amount for the food whose benefits they were told about.
The consumption of that food went up by 14.75 grams, when researchers gave a plate of it to children and weighed how much they left.
Telling children to eat their greens so they will grow up to be big and strong may actually work
The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour, found children were more likely to try a food after being told of the benefits.
This meant they were less likely to refuse it and more likely to eat it, or at least lick, sniff or touch it.
Children’s reluctance to try new foods peaks between the ages of two and five, but previous studies have shown children praised for eating certain foods or told ‘this is yummy’ eat more.
More than half of four-year-olds remember being told that they should eat carrots because they help people to see in the dark.
The latest study found children did not eat more of foods whose health benefits they had learned immediately after the study – perhaps because they had got sick of them. Instead the effects were seen long-term.
The authors of the latest study conclude that mealtime conversations are important, with Dr Lanigan adding: ‘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.’