If you’re a parent, you’ve probably been offered advice about raising your children. If your child is reluctant to try new foods, you’ve maybe even found yourself bombarded with so-called helpful tips, from family members, friends, maybe perfect strangers. It helps to remember that while all that advice is well-intentioned, most is based solely on one family’s personal experience.
If you’re ready to move beyond anecdotes and into the evidence, consider these research-backed tips for encouraging kids to try healthy food.
- Enlist your children’s help in making healthy food. In a study from Columbia University, nearly 600 children from kindergarten to sixth grade took part in a nutrition curriculum. Some children also took part in cooking workshops. The researchers found that children who had helped cook their own foods were more likely to eat those foods in the cafeteria, and even ask for seconds, than children who had not had the cooking class.
- Give it a name…a fun one. According to a study from Brian Wansink, of the Cornell University Food Psychology lab, when nearly 200 four-year olds were given carrots called "X-ray Vision Carrots," they ate nearly twice as many as they did on days when the carrots didn’t have a fun name. Children continued to eat about 50% more carrots…even on the days when they were no longer labeled. Power Parsnips, anyone?
- Dip it in something familiar. A study published in the academic journal Appetite found that adding a familiar flavor — like ketchup, applesauce, or a favorite dressing — increases kid’s willingness to try an unfamiliar food.
- Smile! If you smile while eating your vegetables, you’ll increase your children’s desire for those foods, too, according to a French study.
- Don’t be afraid to window-shop. In a study that redefines “exposure” to good food, researchers found that simply looking at pictures of healthful foods can be enough to encourage young kids to try them. Time to stock up on books about healthy foods.
- Don’t bargain for bites. Studies demonstrate that cajoling kids to eat vegetables actually backfires. The more you pressure your kids into eating something, the less they’ll enjoy it.
And if worse comes to worse, give it time. Many kids appear to go through a phase, typically between 1 and 4 years of age, when they are unwilling to try new foods. Keep faith and continue to serve up good food, and know that this, too, shall pass. And the next time someone offers you advice, simply smile and nod…then point them to the real research.
Ali Benjamin is co-author of The Cleaner Plate Club: More Than 100 Recipes for Real Food Your Kids Will Love (co-authored with Beth Bader), based on her blog. Once a devotee of microwave dinners and diet soda, Ali became interested in farm-fresh food after her first child was born. After several failed meals—and a few too many times seeing her wee daughter hurl a spoon across the room—Ali got serious and taught herself to cook. Today, she is proud to know her parsnips from her purslane, and she can roast Brussels sprouts like a champ. She lives with her husband, two high-energy daughters, and a naughty basset hound mix named Buddy in Williamstown, Massachusetts.