Don’t want your child to eat spinach? Tell her it’s good for her.
I know, it’s counterintuitive because what kid doesn’t want to grow up to be big and strong — like Popeye? But the research shows that kids are less likely to eat foods their parents say are healthy.
There’s more bad news too: the more parents threaten future health consequences (“you won’t grow up to be strong and healthy,” “you don’t want to get sick, do you?”) the more reluctant kids are to eat their veggies.
Why? No one really knows, but researchers speculate that kids choose foods for their hedonic value — according to the pleasure it brings them — and appealing to their logic just doesn’t cut it.
What should you do instead?
1) Talk about foods from your child’s perspective. Does your child think the food look strange? Is it a color she doesn’t like? Or does it remind her of something she wouldn’t want to eat? (One study reports a child describing cauliflower as looking like a sheep.) Try linking new foods to old favorites. Point out aspects of the food that are familiar. Mix different foods together to produce new colors. Cut foods into familiar shapes. Better yet, spark your child’s imagination and let her play with her food. She might just see something fun in it.
2) Look to see which of your child’s emotions are involved. Has she decided squishy is “gross?” If so she is paring this texture with an emotion. Then other foods with the same texture get judged similarly. (This is why your child can say she doesn’t like something before she’s even tried it.) Talk to your child about different textures, where they come from and how they make her feel. Then slowly introduce new textures. Get your child to describe new texture experiences and how they make her feel.
3) Help your child distinguish between similar looking foods. Researchers in one study found that children mixed up cucumbers and zucchinis (not surprising because they look so similar). As a consequence, the kids used their feelings and experiences with one item to shape their feelings and expectations about the other, but not because they thought it was a similar food, but because they thought it was the same food.
It won’t be easy to break the its-good-for-you habit, but it’s worth the effort.
Good luck and let me know how it goes.
De Moura, S. L. 2007. “Determinants of Food Rejection Amongst School Children.” Appetite 49: 716-19.
Dovey, T. M., P. A. Staples, G. E. Leigh, and J. C. G. Halford. 2008. “Food Neophobia and ‘Picky/Fussy’ Eating in Children: a Review.” Appetite 50: 181-93.
Wardle, J., L. J. Cooke, E. L. Gibson, M. Sapochnik, A. Sheiham, and M. Lawson. 2003. “Increasing Children’s Acceptance of Vegetables; a Randomized Trial of Parent-Led Exposure.” Appetite 40: 155-62.