Getting Kids to Eat Vegetables Through Inaction

The "eat your spinach, it'll make you strong" argument is no good, a new study says.
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There are some feuds that it seems no amount of understanding can soothe. Capulets and Montagues. Yankees and Red Sox. Hatfields and McCoys. Kids and vegetables. Those outside the feud shake their heads in incredulity, wondering why the two sides can’t just work it out, but unless you’re staring down a plate of peas, trapped at the dinner table while your sister who finished her vegetables gets to go watch cartoons, it's hard to understand the gravity of the situation.

In a country where the most popular vegetable is a potato, getting kids and veggies to reach a détente is on a lot of people’s minds. A classic parental strategy is to tell kids the vegetables are good for them. “Spinach will make you strong,” they might say, invoking Popeye. “It’ll put hair on your chest,” my dad always said. (He had three daughters.) But a new study forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research found that these attempts at persuading kids to eat their vegetables did not have the intended effect.

Researchers from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University studied kids aged three to five, when they haven’t had too much opportunity to experience “food-related persuasions” yet. The children listened to a story about a girl who ate a snack, sometimes crackers, sometimes carrots. Some versions of the story told the benefits the girl received from her snack—it tasted good and made her happy, or it made her feel healthy and full of energy—and some just said that she ate it and went on with her life. A couple experiments proffered more specific snack benefits—that the snack would help the girl learn to read, or to count. Then the kids were offered the same snack the girl ate, and reported how tasty they thought it was.

Unsurprisingly, when the snack was presented as healthy in the story, the kids ate less of it and rated it as less tasty, apparently subscribing to the prevailing notion that food can’t be both good and good for you. But it wasn’t just a health message that turned kids off the snacks—if the food appeared to serve any goal, such as helping them learn to read, for example, the children ate less of it.

“Ultimately, we find that simply serving the food, without giving any message about the goal eating it might serve, maximizes consumption of healthy (e.g., carrots) or neutral (e.g., crackers) food items,” the researchers write.

This isn’t super helpful for easing tensions in the battles already being waged between kids and vegetables. In another study, kids who were offered fruits and vegetables for school lunch often didn’t take them. But perhaps it’s possible to play it cool with young kids who haven’t yet hardened their hearts to carrots. Just put them on the plate—“Just a regular part of dinner, nothing to see here”—and wait, and watch.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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