Getting kids to eat well isn’t just a health concern for parents, it’s also a huge frustration. Adam Mansbach, author of the 2011 bestseller Go the Fuck to Sleep, captures the exasperation with the title of his just-released book: You Have to Fucking Eat. Cursing aside, how do you teach kids to eat a healthy diet without a food fight? Here are eight easy tips from today’s top scientists, proven to encourage the pickiest of eaters to eat better—even when you’re not around:
Keep the ‘dislike’ Foods on the Menu
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That goes for serving kids the broccoli, peas and crust-on sandwiches. A new study published in the journal Appetite found that repeated exposure to foods in childhood is strongly related to liking the food later in life—even if the foods were originally on the “yuck!” list. Researchers asked college students to reminisce about how frequently they ate various foods in their childhood years, along with how much they enjoyed them. The students also reported their current opinion. The only items the students still didn’t like? Foods they never ate as a child. Even when parents had introduced a disliked food infrequently, the students reported currently liking it more than if it was never on the menu. Don’t give up! Take a deep breath and keep dishing up the sprouts.
Give Them the Runaround
Scheduling play-time before meals can get kids to eat more, and more of the good stuff, according to a recent study published in the journal Preventive Medicine. Researchers found that holding recess before lunch increased fruit and vegetable consumption by 54 percent. Recess is often held after lunch, which causes children to skip healthy foods in order to hit the jungle gym sooner, study authors say. Allow the rug-rats to run around a bit; it may be the no-cost solution to a healthy appetite.
Plate it Like Picasso
Mashed potatoes, French fries, pasta: for many kids, only beige foods pass muster. But new research suggests children’s natural affinity for bright colors may help parents of picky eaters encourage a more nutritionally-diverse diet. The Cornell University study found plates with seven different items and six different colors were the most appealing to children.
Don’t Utter the G-word
The idea that eating carrots can make you smarter may encourage you to snack on crudité, but a study in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests mentioning the health benefits of food to children can have the opposite effect. Researchers found 4 to 6-year-olds were more likely to snack on carrots after they were read a story about a girl who regularly ate them than when the story included a health message that the carrots also helped her learn to count. To a kid’s ear, the words “good for you” sound a lot like “tastes bad.” Researchers say parents are better off staying mum on the health benefits, or emphasizing how delicious a food is instead.
Hand Over the Salad Spoons
Allowing kids to serve themselves may encourage them to try new types of food, researchers say. According to a recent study printed in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, children never develop the ability to read their body’s hunger cues when family meals are pre-plated. Study authors say the better option, if you can tolerate a bit of mess, is to encourage children to serve themselves.
Help Them Know They’ve Had Enough
New research shows nagging kids to finish their food almost always backfires, making picky eaters even pickier. A study in the journal Appetite found mothers who pressured their 3 to 6-year-old children about food were more likely to have kids who adamantly avoided eating. Researchers also warn urging kids to eat when they’re not hungry can dull a child’s innate sense of satiety, which may spell negative consequences for appetite regulation in the long term. Give kids a chance to stop eating when they’re full, even if you think they aren’t.
Keep Calm and Get Cooking
Reach for your chef’s whites more often and your kids may start reaching for more broccoli—even when you’re not around. A recent study conducted by Penn State University found that kids whose parents spent more time preparing meals at home independently choose healthy snacks like broccoli over high-calorie options like cookies from the same food spread. Better yet, hand over the whisk to your mini helper. A second study published by Public Health Nutrition found that children who helped with cooking showed a greater preference for fruits and vegetables.
Stock Up on Ramekins
Using small bowls or ramekins when serving up dessert and other energy-dense snacks like chips may prevent kids from overeating—and parents, too. A recent Cornell study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found bigger bowls (16-ounce versus 8-ounce) caused preschoolers to request 87 percent more cereal and eat 52 percent more than they would otherwise, regardless of their age, weight or BMI.