FOOD FOR KIDS: Study shows how affirming, nutrition-focused 'food talk' can get kids to eat healthier

By Mary Ellen Shoup contact

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages / Henglein and Steets
©GettyImages / Henglein and Steets

Related tags: Food for kids, Nutrition

How can you get kids to eat their veggies and whole grains without a battle? According to researchers, clearly communicating a food's nutrition benefits to children through affirming statements will help kids make healthy food decisions on their own.

In the study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior​ by scientists at Washington State University (WSU) and Florida State University (FSU), researchers found that using affirming statements like ‘eat your lentils if you want to grow bigger and faster’ were more effective at getting kids to make healthy food choices than presenting food repeatedly without conversation.

"Every child wants to be bigger, faster, able to jump higher,"​ said lead author of the study, Jane Lanigan, associate professor in the WSU Department of Human Development.

"Using these types of examples made the food more attractive to eat."

Methods and results

A total of 98 families (89% response rate) recruited from two early education programs agreed to participate in the study and 87 children aged 3- to 6-years-old completed the experiment. These children were predominantly white (67%), from middle- to upper-income homes, with highly educated parents (67% from homes with parents who had a bachelor's degree or higher).

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 WSU and FSU research team then offered these healthy foods to a group of 3- to-5-year-old children over the course of six weeks with food testing built into the children’s normal classroom routine.

Over the six weeks, the kids were offered two of the foods they liked the least twice a week and when presenting those foods, researchers shared pre-selected age-appropriate facts about the benefits of the food with the kids.

The researchers then measured how much the kids ate at three times: pre-test, post-test, and one month after the study ended.

The immediate post-test showed no result, likely because the kids "got sick of eating the same foods,"​ Lanigan said.

However, a month later kids ate twice as much of the food that they indicated they disliked during the pre-test period but heard positive nutrition phrases about throughout the six weeks of the experiment.

Parent, child food talk

The way in which an adult talks with a child about a less familiar food when serving it has received limited research attention, noted researchers, who wanted to determine if ‘child-centered’ nutrition phrases that convey the benefit of the food (like, ‘Eat your carrots to see better’) resulted in kids making healthier food choices.

The phrases used by parents in the study focused on goals children have (e.g. grow bigger and stronger) and were based on accurate nutrition information.

“During these food conversations, it is important to consider both the frequency and content of the messaging provided. Past research identified that social rewards such as praise, reinforcement of taste, and messaging about the healthfulness of foods, as well as frequency of messaging can affect children's consumption,”​ they wrote.

“Adult assertions that a food tastes good increased the likelihood that a child would try that food, and absolute statements such as, ‘This is yummy,’ rather than comparisons with other foods, were more effective.”

Lanigan added that the study will help parents introduce new and healthy foods to their child’s diet without as much of a struggle.

"I have two kids and I probably could have done things differently when trying to get them to eat healthier,"​ Lanigan noted.

"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."

FoodNavigator-USA 2019 Summit: FOOD FOR KIDS 

What is the most effective way to communicate and encourage healthy eating to kids? Come and share your thoughts at FoodNavigator-USA’s FOOD FOR KIDS​ summit taking place in Chicago this November 18-20.

We have a number of exciting presentations and panel discussions in store covering topics from ‘Brainfood for kids!’, how to formulate and market a kids brand successfully, and how kids' flavor preferences are developed.



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