Study: Kids' 'pester power' can promote healthy family eating habits

By Mary Ellen Shoup contact

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Related tags: Food for kids

Could children's pester power (the influence kids have over their family’s eating behaviors) be a force for promoting positive and healthy eating behaviors at home?

A study by researchers suggests that nutritional lessons learned in the classroom support healthy food habits that stick with kids when at home and grocery shopping with their parents.

In the study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior​, researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Louisiana tech University studied classrooms that delivered weekly Together, We Inspire Healthy Eating (WISE)​ lessons at seven Head Start sites across two states in the southern United States.

After one full school year of weekly WISE lessons, researchers conducted interviews with the children’s parents to determine if the nutritional lessons and positive health habits taught at school had any influence outside of the classroom.

“We asked parents how often they experience pester power. And we also asked them about their dietary habits before and after the intervention – their intake of fruits and vegetables, their intake of nutrient poor foods, and also their parenting behaviors that support healthy diets for their children,” ​said lead study author Taren Swindle, PhD, Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, College of Medicine, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

"The more pester power that parents were exposed to from their children, the greater we saw changes in the desired direction for intake of fruits and vegetables and also supportive parenting practices," ​she said.

"It means that children's influence on their homes may be an underdeveloped potential target for future interventions."

Should food marketing be used in the classroom?

Considered a marketing program, the WISE lesson program uses a cartoon owl named ‘Windy’ to promote healthy eating behaviors among children, and could be open to criticism from those who believe marketing has no place in the classroom – even if the intent is to encourage kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, said Dr. Swindle.

“There are folks that have been questioning the ethics of marketing to children for a while now, so that’s a key consideration. There have been pleas and policies or regulations to stop the practice of using characters to influence children’s food preferences. Yet, when we go to the grocery store, we still see characters on nutrient-poor foods all over the store,”​ said Dr. Swindle.

“So I suppose, the ethical concern could be said in the same way for what we’re doing – using marketing to promote fruits and vegetables to children. But my thought is that it’s unethical to not counter that marketing of unhealthy foods that children are getting with promotion of healthy foods, especially when we know that pester power can work both ways.”

Schools also have some regulatory force on its side as the USDA requires that school districts, at a minimum, prohibit the marketing of food and drinks that do not meet Smart Snacks in School​nutritional standards.

‘A promising area for future exploration’

Dr. Swindle pointed out that because the study was not a randomized control trial, further research is needed to fully determine if the WISE nutrition program had a true impact on kids' food consumption and preferences at home.

“We would need to have future studies to look at this more experimentally, and compared children that were exposed to these tactics to children that were not, because in our study all children got the same exposure​ [to WISE lessons in the classroom],” she said.

“But we can know from our design that we have signals that this might matter in intervention work with young children. I kind of think of it as hypothesis-generating work. It suggests a promising area for future exploration.”

Interested in hearing more insights into kids' nutrition, eating behaviors, and product innovations in the category? Attend FoodNavigator-USA's FOOD FOR KIDS virtual summit​, a five-week online event series, commencing Wednesday, Oct. 21st. Register your interest​ to stay current with the latest event updates!

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