By using the right words and repeating the phrases, adults can help young kids get over picky eating behaviors and eat healthier foods, according to a new study.
Saying “Lentils will help you run faster,” for instance, encourages preschoolers to understand the benefits and pick the foods they want, the study authors write in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
“Previous studies have shown that adults struggle with how to talk to young children about food,” said lead study author Jane Lanigan of Washington State University in Vancouver.
Most children between 4 and 8 years old don’t meet recommended guidelines for vegetables, grains and fatty acids, and they tend to eat too many empty calories.
“Conversations are sometimes inaccurate or not helpful or even harmful in terms of helping a child learn to eat healthfully,” she told Reuters Health by email.
Lanigan and colleagues worked with 87 preschoolers from two early childhood education centers, testing whether repeat exposure and the correct phrasing would help preschoolers try four foods that are generally less accepted by little kids: tomatoes, bell peppers, lentils and quinoa.
The researchers also surveyed parents about their child’s eating history, the meal environment at home and nutrition knowledge, as well as parental income and education.
In the exposure tests, the study team assessed whether the children liked the foods, which were presented separately in small plastic containers. The tomatoes and green peppers were raw and chopped into bite-sized pieces.
The quinoa and lentils were cooked with no added spices. Kids who refused to sample a food were encouraged to smell, touch or lick it, and told they could try it and spit it out if they wanted too.
Then, for the next six weeks, researchers ran a tasting station in the classroom two days a week and offered one food to taste. On the second day, a researcher would include food-specific phrases in the conversation two times during the tasting, such as “Lentils will help you run fast and jump high” or “Fruits and vegetables keep you from getting sick.”
Lanigan’s team found that after the six-week experiment, children were more willing to try foods, particularly the kids whose parents had higher education levels. The children also rated the foods one point higher on a five-point scale compared to their ratings at the start of the study.
Importantly, at home one month after the experiment ended, parents reported that children consumed twice as much of the foods introduced in the experiment as they had before.
“Parents asked for our ‘recipe’ because they couldn’t believe their child would eat lentils or quinoa,” Lanigan said. “The funny part is we prepared the foods with no added spices or flavors to maintain consistency. There are much more appealing recipes.”
Repetition gave the children multiple experiences to become familiar with the food and explore it without the stress or pressure of being expected to eat the food, the study authors note in their report. This may lead to an increased willingness to try, like and eat the food. At home, meal-time conversations could be a way to encourage food exploration and develop positive eating behaviors, they add.
“We all struggle to eat healthily given our current food environment, and developing ways to get children to try healthy foods that may not be as immediately appealing as a sugary treat is important to encourage children to develop healthy eating habits early,” said Alison Miller of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“I think it’s likely helpful for parents to talk about the benefits of healthy food with their children in a child-friendly way, and also to model it,” she said in an email.
“But also, all children have a different ‘temperament’ when it comes to eating, so don’t get too worried about your child being a picky eater unless they’re not growing.”