It seems no one knows how to get kids to eat healthy food. The average kid in America eats the equivalent of 4 strawberries and 3 baby carrots per day. But they need three times that amount to meet their daily fruit and vegetable servings.
On the other hand, children eat three times their daily allowance of sugar!
Toddlers eat more fruits and veggies as they get older. But after age seven, kids actually begin to eat less and less healthy food.
So, how do you get kids to eat healthy food? This article lays out what works, according to the latest research. The big takeaway is: what parents say matters, but the magic lies in what we do.
In this article:
- Kids eat healthy food when parents eat healthy food
- Kids eat healthy food when it’s the only food around
- What kids don’t know helps them eat better
- Kids want what they can’t have
- Veggies taste better when the kid cooks them
- Kids who know better, eat better
- The art of persuading a kid to eat healthy food
- If at first a kid won’t eat healthy food, try 12 more times
- Don’t criticize the cookies
- The family who eats together eats healthier food
- Kids who sleep better, eat better
- Summary: a 5 point plan to get kids to eat healthy food
Kids eat healthy food when parents eat healthy food
Ever split an ice cream with your child, figuring that way they’d eat less? That strategy may backfire.
How a parent eats, called modeling, has a bigger influence on their child’s diet than what rules they set around eating. It even matters more than what foods they keep in the pantry.
In 2017, scientists analyzed 78 previous studies to see how parenting practices affected childhood diet. The studies tracked everything from praise to pressure to accessibility of foods. They found that the parent’s own diet mattered most.
Healthy modeling leads kids to choose healthy foods. On the other hand, when parents eat junk food, so do their kids. Modeling matters more than any other factor for kids of all ages. According to one study, it is the only parent-related factor that leads to healthier young adults.
Perhaps kids want to eat like us because we make it look tasty. Or perhaps they want to gain our approval.
But a large part may be that when we eat healthy foods, we make healthier choices for our kids. After all, if a parent doesn’t eat ice cream, they may not buy ice cream for their child.
Kids eat healthy food when it’s the only food around
Is it better to limit how many cookies our kids eat or just not buy them at all? Studies suggest the latter.
When a parent tells their child they can only have one cookie, scientists call this overt control. When a parent avoids taking their child to the bakery, scientists call this covert control. The main difference between overt and covert control is that the child can’t tell that covert control is happening. Time and again, covert control wins out in research.
In one study, scientists followed children over three years. When parents used covert methods to keep their kids from eating junk food, the kids ate less of it over time. However, when parents used rules to restrict junk food intake, kids ate more junk food down the road.
Likewise, scientists find that the amount of junk food in the house affects kid’s choices nearly as much as a parent’s own diet.
This makes intuitive sense. We can only hold out so long when kids whine for cookies. Eventually… perhaps after dinner and a bite of broccoli… we relent. But when we keep sweets out of the house, the victory is already won.
Tweaking the environment works for healthy foods, too. Studies find that keeping a lot of fruits and veggies available is the best way to get kids to eat them.
What kids don’t know helps them eat better
One study found that serving meals at the same time every day leads to healthier diets. If dinner is always served at 6pm, hunger hormones are less likely to erupt at 5pm and leave them begging for a snack.
Portion size also affects eating behavior, according to research. Children eat less junk when fed smaller portions. On the other hand, if you want kids to eat more fruits or veggies, heap them on their plate.
As for average snacks like popcorn, leave them accessible. One study found that when access to all snacks was limited, kids became more likely to overeat over time. Kids developed the best eating habits when they didn’t have sweets or chips available at home, but popcorn and pretzels were within reach.
Kids want what they can’t have
Think of junk food like a bad-boy teenage romance. The more we tell our kids they cannot have unhealthy foods, the more they want them.
Multiple studies link food restriction by parents with childhood obesity. Reviewing 31 studies on the topic, scientists concluded that children are more likely to weigh more when their parents control their diets with food restriction.
Now, it could be that when BMI goes up, parents begin restricting food. Perhaps a child’s BMI, rather than food restriction, leads to this connection. But it could be that restriction leads to craving and binging. To know for sure, scientists must compare parents’ feeding styles and watch how things change over time.
One study split parent feeding styles into two types: restrictive and non-restrictive. Then, they followed kids over four years. Restrictive feeding led to more eating in the absence of hunger over time, even among healthy kids. And eating in the absence of hunger led to more obesity over time.
Another study followed overweight teens for five years. The teens all began at a similar BMI, but those who were encouraged to diet gained the most weight.
And to try it in a lab, scientists ran two experiments. They restricted kids from eating a certain food to see what would happen. Sure enough, the kids who were told they could not eat a food were more likely to choose it later, and to eat more of it.
On the other hand, pressure to eat is associated with a reduced BMI over time, even among children at a high risk for obesity.
When we take the power to make food choices away from our children, they seem to quit thinking about their own hunger cues. So what would happen if we gave more responsibility to our kids?
Veggies taste better when the kid cooks them
Broccoli seems to taste better when kids help put it on their plate. When scientists reviewed 15 studies on the topic, kids who helped cook dinner ate a healthier diet and more fruits and vegetables. They even seemed to enjoy eating veggies more than other kids.
This might simply be related to the types of foods families cook together, so scientists had families cook in a lab. In a controlled experiment, some families cooked a meal together, while other parents cooked alone. The resulting meal was the same, but the kids who helped prepare it ate 76% more salad!
Gardening may have a similar effect. A large analysis of current research found that controlling strategies were counterproductive for getting kids to eat healthier, but “hands-on” approaches – specifically gardening and cooking together – led to more veggie consumption and worked better than food education.
Kids who know better, eat better
Knowledge isn’t everything. Knowing healthy food from unhealthy doesn’t always help us at a pizza party. But sometimes it’s enough to keep us from picking up the phone and ordering pizza at home.
It turns out that knowledge helps kids make healthier choices, too. Even preschoolers were more likely to choose healthy foods when they were able to distinguish between “healthy” and “unhealthy”.
Further, health education leads to weight loss among overweight kids. When scientists reviewed current research, they found that educating overweight kids with nutrition information led to weight loss that was sustained over time.
Food labeling has had this affect in adults. In an analysis across 11 countries, food labeling has reduced consumer intake of unhealthy options by 13% and increased vegetable consumption by 13.5%.
The important part is to label the food, not the person. Interventions that discussed weight with children actually backfired. Instead, the most effective education focused on health and growth.
The art of persuading a kid to eat healthy food
If openly restricting junk food makes kids crave cupcakes, does pressuring kids to eat veggies make them scared of broccoli? In fact, it does.
Research shows kids who are “pressured” to eat veggies eat significantly less. On the other hand, kids who are “encouraged” to eat veggies eat significantly more. So what’s the difference?
Encouragement assumes that the kid is in charge. On the other hand, if a kid is pressured to eat a bite of salad, they don’t have a choice. Their enthusiasm disappears. And they certainly don’t want to invite more pressure by enjoying it.
Scientists studied parents prompting toddlers to eat veggies in a lab. The more often parents used coercive or controlling prompts, the more often the kids refused the food.
The same is not true of positive encouragement. More positive prompts lead toddlers to eat more veggies. Multiple studies find that encouragement works but pressure backfires.
And the best kind of encouragement may be reasoning. Children ate the most veggies when parents used this strategy. Kids may actually internalize the motivation if you tell them the veggies make them stronger.
However, the most immediately successful strategy for getting a kid to try a new food is to eat it in front of them. Modeling wins again.
But encouragement works, and it works in kids of all ages. Teens eat half a serving more fruits and veggies per day when encouraged by parents.
And don’t forget to lavish the praise. According to research, praise improves both healthy and unhealthy food intake. In the lab, praise leads kids to eat more veggies. And praise for healthy eating is associated with a healthy childhood BMI.
If at first a kid won’t eat healthy food, try 12 more times
No one ever described kale as “love at first bite.” And it may be that those salad-eating kids who force us to pick our jaws up off the ground simply have more persistent parents.
Analyzing 12 studies, researchers find that repeatedly exposing kids to healthy foods leads them to eat more of them. Taste exposure works especially well for veggies.
Kids usually need at least 5 to 6 exposures before accepting a new food. Often, 8 to 12 tries works better. Daily or weekly exposures work better than monthly.
Surprisingly, adding dips, salt or butter to veggies does not get kids to eat more. Kids actually eat more when the veggies are plain. Cutting fruits into fun shapes doesn’t seem to work, either. Not even serving veggies before the meal appears to help.
What does work is offering a variety of veggies and larger portions.
And you may have to nudge them a few times. It takes 2.5 prompts, on average, to get a kid to try something new.
But if a nudge doesn’t work, don’t resort to bribery. Bribery leads kids to eat less healthy food in research. Likewise, using junk food as a reward leads kids to eat more of it. So, telling a kid they can’t have dessert until they try a bite of broccoli probably undermines both goals in the long run.
Don’t criticize the cookies
A positive attitude gets kids to eat healthy foods, but a negative attitude only leads kids to eat more junk food.
Scientists have known for a long time that only children are more prone to obesity. What they didn’t understand was why. One study solved the riddle by watching families eat in the lab. The parents of only children tended to make more negative comments about what their kids ate than the parents of siblings. And it turns out that food negativity, not a lack of siblings, explains the obesity.
We’ve all heard the advice to just ignore annoying behavior if you want it to disappear. We might want to start thinking about food the same way.
Another study tracked kids at a buffet. Kids who received more discouragement about unhealthy foods had a higher BMI. So did those who were asked to delay dessert.
So, teach them about unhealthy food and keep it away. Yet don’t bother criticizing the cookie when they are already reaching for it. You may do more harm than good.
The family who eats together eats healthier food
Family meals may not be as important as modeling or encouragement, but still have an important role in a healthy diet. Adults who engage in family meals tend to have lower BMI’s. But it turns out even preschoolers can benefit.
Researchers find that family meals help young children self-regulate food intake. Perhaps family meals allow parents to model healthy eating.
Or perhaps family meals replace television. A review of 15 studies found that more screen time was associated with less intake of healthy foods and greater intake of junk foods.
Whatever the reason, family meals have a lasting influence. Young adults who grew up eating family meals eat more fruits and veggies and drink less soda. And teens who eat with their families are less likely to gain excess weight over the next 3 years.
Family meals may be more important than what is on the plate. Teens living in unhealthy food environments eat more fruits and veggies than those living in healthy food environments when they eat dinner as a family. Family meals matter more than how many fruits and veggies are kept in the house.
Kids who sleep better, eat better
If you’ve ever been woken up at five in the morning, you know how difficult it can be to pass up a donut.
Kids are no different. In a study of over 5,000 kids, less sleep leads to snacking and junk food.
Surprisingly, it is not just lack of sleep that leads to a poor diet. Kids who get enough sleep but who have a later bedtime choose unhealthy foods, as well. So do those with a varying bedtime.
Scientists control for factors like screen time and physical activity. It appears that something about poor sleep leads to poor eating.
Summary: a 5 point plan to get kids to eat healthy food
Here are the scientifically proven strategies for how to get kids to eat healthy food. The most important factors lead.
- Eat a healthy diet!
- Create a healthy food environment.
- Encourage kids to eat veggies. Keep trying – it may take 12 opportunities before they accept a new food!
- Cook together, garden together and eat together. Talk about what makes a healthy meal.
- Get to bed on time.
And if all else fails, let it fail. Studies repeatedly show that restriction, coercion and negativity only lead children to make poorer choices.
Food availability and parental modeling are the most effective strategies for improving diet
Parent’s own diet, rather than parental control practices, predict future diet of young adults
Modeling and encouraging kids to eat veggies, while covertly restricting junk food best
Covert control superior to overt control on fruit intake and BMI over time
More covert control and less restriction leads to healthier snack intake
Covert strategies improve diet over 3 years; restrictive strategies backfire
Kids need up to 12 exposures to new foods; coercing or bribing backfire
Encouragement > modeling > fruit/vegetable accessibility > family meals tied to healthy diet
Teaching kids about healthy foods, improving nutritional quality reduce obesity
Family meals improve diet quality and BMI
Gardening and cooking programs best for veggie intake; controlling strategies backfire
Short sleep, irregular sleep and poor sleep habits all associated with poor diet