It was a monumental dinner table moment. About a year ago, Jennifer Orlet Fisher glanced at her 8-year-old son and was astonished to see a bite-sized piece missing from his tomato slice. She had exposed her son to tomatoes hundreds of times, and until now, he had been uninterested. Fisher felt a little misty-eyed, as this parenting milestone doubled as a sort of research breakthrough.
For about 20 years, Fisher has been researching a question that has likely perplexed many a parent: Why do kids like (and dislike) certain foods, and how can parents motivate kids to not only eat the tomato, but actually prefer it? "The key for parents is to get kids to like healthy foods, not to eat healthy foods," she says, "because the eating will naturally follow the liking."
Kids who actually enjoy healthy foods may be less likely to join the growing number of their peers who face weight problems. The rate of childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents over the past 30 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so that as of 2010, more than a third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. It's largely up to parents to influence their kids' food preferences and choices so they don't become an obesity statistic, and Fisher can help.
As director of the Family Eating Laboratory at Temple University's Center for Obesity Research and Education in Philadelphia, Fisher provides some insight on how parents can get their kids to eat more greens. Her responses have been edited.
What factors determine kids' preferences?
Well, we know that kids are hard-wired to prefer sweet and salty tastes and umami, which is more of a savory taste. It's thought that these tastes are predispositions that have evolved to help children to be oriented toward foods that contain energy. And at birth, infants tend to reject sour and bitter tastes – the thinking being that these tastes may be signals to avoid certain toxins. While some taste predispositions do vary from child to child, the preferences for those basic tastes are hard-wired. You can see this very easily in your kids' food preferences: On the top of children's lists are sweets and foods with high levels of fat, and – down at the very bottom – vegetables. That's true across many different types of studies.
What's surprising to a lot of people is that, while fruits and vegetables are sometimes discussed in the same breath, children naturally prefer fruit. So getting them into kids' diets is really just a matter of exposing them to fruits. For vegetables and other healthy foods, we know these are not tastes that kids innately like, so they have to learn to like these foods. So the question then becomes: How do we promote positive learning in a way that helps kids prefer healthy foods?
How can parents teach their kids to like healthier foods, especially when we're talking about small children, who seem to be particularly picky between ages 2 and 6?
One of the challenges for parents is that, beginning in toddlerhood and extending into early childhood, kids generally show fear of trying new foods – some kids more than others. We know that one of the most powerful influences on children's acceptance is simply exposure. Give children repeated opportunities to experience foods. It's not just the number of times children experience foods, it's also whether those experiences are positive or negative. Positive feelings can be those you feel after eating, like feeling sated. Negative feelings can be, for example, if a child feels sick afterward.
Are there any other examples of negative experiences kids may have after eating that parents may not realize?
One of the most common negative experiences kids face is simply being pressured into eating something that they find aversive or scary. That may be the No. 1 challenge of parenting around food choices. As parents, we want our kids to eat their vegetables, and we often do things at the table to try to get kids to do so. This is probably the worst approach you could take. For example, we know that, while bribing kids with dessert to eat their vegetables may be successful at the table, it's likely to make kids dislike those vegetables in the long run.
Some of the new research on food acceptance shows that it need not be kids versus broccoli to have an effect. Small exposures can make a difference over time. Preparing foods with familiar flavors also helps.
Are we talking, say, mixing a little broccoli into a pasta the child likes?
Right, and also keep in mind that if a kid looks at their dinner plate and sees the broccoli next to a food he really loves, like chicken nuggets, he's going to choose chicken nuggets every time. When introducing new, healthy foods, find times when there's less competition. Try presenting cut-up vegetables with a little low-fat dip as a snack before dinner, when we know kids are hungry and motivated to eat and there's no other competition.
What are other positive experiences parents can attach to healthy foods?
The social aspect of eating is really important. One of the most powerful ways to create positive experiences around food is actually quite easy: Simply enjoy those foods in front of your child. Be enthusiastic about eating them. Other ways to help ensure that kids are making their own choices is to get them involved in food. There's research coming out about various ways that kids can take a more active role, whether it's helping to prepare meals, grow foods or pick vegetables. These activities can make healthy foods more appealing and less scary.
Is there anything we haven't covered that you think parents should know?
Food acceptance is not immediate. Data shows that most parents make decisions on whether kids like or dislike foods after a few tries. (And if you've had kids and had the experience of getting food thrown back, it's not unreasonable that parents do this.) But we know that food acceptance is not a yes or no; it's a process. Kids can require up to five to 10 exposures to see increases in liking, and even more, depending on the food. The take-home message for parents is to see it as a process, and to fight that instinct to push foods.