Kids and Healthy Food: Reverse Psychology? None is Better Still

New research suggests that we don’t tell our children veggies are good for them, milk builds strong bones, fish is brain food, and dozens of other old staples of the “eat healthy” initiative parents undertake. And lest we rely on another bit of common wisdom, reverse psychology is not particularly effective either. It turns out, saying nothing at all as we let kids try the foods we want them to eat is the winning approach, according to five studies conducted by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

The research does not suggest we let kids author their own grocery lists; it merely recommends we do not cloud messages they may be susceptible to that the foods are tasty in and of themselves when we also attach messages of extraneous benefit, like bone health. Young children appear to care little if carrots make you see better, milk makes you strong or fish makes you smart.

One reason for the comparative effectiveness of no message at all may be that positive-benefit messages can somehow foster the idea in children that if something is good for us, it must surely taste bad. Whatever the reason, the studies, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, have found that when children hear about the benefits of healthy food, they’re less likely to eat it.

The authors conducted the five studies with children between the ages of three and five. In all of the studies, the children were read a picture book story about a girl who ate a snack of crackers or carrots. Depending on the experiment, the story either did or did not state the benefits of the snack (making the girl strong or helping her learn how to count). The children were then given the opportunity to eat the food featured in the story and the authors measured how much they ate. The children ate more when they did not receive any message about the foods making them strong or helping them learn how to count. The preschoolers consumed fewer carrots and crackers when these snacks were presented as instrumental to knowing how to read (study 3) and how to count (studies 4 and 5).

The best way to pitch food to children, the research finds, is to present it with no marketing message whatsoever. Even telling them the food is “yummy” doesn’t help as much as remaining silent about it.
In the studies, if children heard that Wheat Thins were healthy, they ate on average three crackers. If they heard that Wheat Thins were “yummy,” they ate seven. The choice made by children who got no information at all? They ate nine. The researchers discovered the same phenomenon with carrots.

The researchers hypothesize that if children think food is good for them, it can’t also taste good. They write, “This supports an inference account for the negative impact of certain persuasive messages on consumption: preschoolers who are exposed to one association (e.g., between eating carrots and intellectual performance) infer another association (e.g., between carrots and taste) must be weaker.”

The research illuminates what can feel counterintuitive as a parent but may not seem so if one remebers what it was like to be a child. There is an awful lot of convincing baked into a child's day, and much of the convincing stems from the fact that the activity may ultimately be distasteful: going to school, homework, brushing your teeth, bed time.

Let children make their own decision with a major caveat: Choose what food to put in front of them. Then, simply focus more on the positive experience of eating the food—and show, don't tell.

Journal of Consumer Research, 2014, Vol. 41, No. 3, pp. 642-655, http://www.jstor.org/discover/

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