Selling Kids On Veggies When Rules Like 'Clean Your Plate' Fail

Mar 4, 2013
Originally published on March 6, 2013 3:14 pm

If you're a parent, you've probably heard remarks like this during dinner: "I don't like milk! My toast is burnt! I hate vegetables! I took a bite already! What's for dessert?" It can be daunting trying to ensure a healthy diet for our children. So it's no wonder parents often resort to dinner time rules.

In our new poll, with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, 25 percent of families tell their children to eat everything on their plate, and 45 percent report setting restrictions on the types of foods eaten. Increasingly common are rules like "clean your plate," as well as newer strictures such as "no second helpings of potatoes," "no dessert until you eat your vegetables" and "sodas and chips only on special occasions."

This is all well-meant advice. But does it work? Kelly Brownell, who directs the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, says, "No."

"By demanding that children eat things like vegetables before they have a dessert, it makes it seem like there's something wrong with eating vegetables, and that you have to swallow medicine before you get to the good part," Brownell says.

Not only that, but rules like this can backfire, according to Kristi King, a registered dietitian at Texas Children's Hospital and a spokesperson with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Some of the studies have shown us that when they were put in a situation where somebody is saying 'finish this' or 'finish that,' the kids actually had more negative responses and actually consumed less of the food than the kids who didn't have that reinforcement of 'you need to finish.' "

The better option, King says, is creative negotiation. Take, for example, what she calls "Try It Tuesdays." On a "Try It Tuesday," parents, along with their children, pick out a new food to sample. It helps to involve the kids in preparing the dish as well, she says. This investment in the new food increases the likelihood that the child will try it and even enjoy it.

If they still say no, King suggests "no-thank-you bites" — something her friends made up for their 3-year-old daughter. It goes like this: The child just has to take a bite, and if she doesn't like it, she can say "no thank you," and that's that. But typically in this family, the "no thank you" turns into a "thank you," as the 3-year-old watches her parents eating and enjoying the food.

"You see her little hand reach across to the fork, and it kind of goes over into the vegetable," King says. "The next thing you know, you turn around and she's eaten the entire vegetable."

And, it turns out — as with most other behaviors — your kids are watching you, King says. "I had a parent who came into clinic not too long ago, and I said, 'OK, what's our goal for being here today?' And he looked at me and said, 'Make him eat vegetables!' And, my question back was, 'Well, do you eat vegetables?' And his answer was, 'No, I don't like them.' "

Dad mentioned he loved grilling, so King suggested he try that with vegetables. By their next visit, he'd become an avid veggie griller.

"Zucchini and squash and carrots and eggplants and onions and tomatoes — you name it, he was grilling it," says King. "[It's] a dietitian's dream — getting an entire family involved in eating more healthy foods."

As for dessert, Yale University's Brownell says there's nothing wrong with an occasional treat. "That doesn't mean that the only options are things high in sugar or fat or salt. There can be wonderful combinations of things like sorbet, sherbet, fruits — things like that can make outstanding desserts and be really good for people."

Some parents worry that having only healthy foods at home will lead kids to overdo it with junk food when they head off to college. But Brownell says there's no evidence to support this worry. And, in fact, the reverse is probably true.

Even if the young adults indulge in unhealthy foods at first, they're far more likely to return to the healthy foods they grew up with. "Having only good foods around the house makes all the sense in the world, and research supports this," he says.

So, Brownell says, fill your kitchen with healthy food, don't buy junk food, and watch what you eat. Your kids will follow your lead.

This story is part of the series On the Run: How Families Struggle to Eat Well and Exercise. The series is based on a poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. If you want to dive deeper, here's a summary of the poll findings, plus the topline data and charts.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A positive approach is also what nutrition experts suggest in getting your kids to eat a healthy diet. As NPR's Patti Neighmond reports, that's not what lots of parents are doing.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Maybe your dinner table conversation with the kids sometimes sounds like this.

JESSICA LEICHSENRING: And some vegetables.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I don't like...

LEICHSENRING: Or you don't...

CHILD: ...veggies.

LEICHSENRING: ...or you don't get dessert.

NEIGHMOND: That's Mom, Jessica Leichsenring, who lives in Wisconsin. She appeared in an earlier story we did about family dinners. And the things she's saying to her kids are what many parents across the country are saying to theirs.

In our poll, nearly half say they set rules on what type of foods kids can eat.

CHILD: (Humming)

LEICHSENRING: Eat your dinner and drink your milk, please.

CHILD: I don't like milk.

LEICHSENRING: Well, you still need to drink a little bit of it.

NEIGHMOND: Well-intentioned advice but does it work? Kelly Brownell, who directs the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University says no.

DR. KELLY BROWNELL: By demanding that children eat things like vegetables before they have a dessert, it makes it seem like there's something wrong with eating vegetables and you have to swallow your medicine before you get to the good part.

NEIGHMOND: And another typical dinnertime rule, eat everything on your plate. In our poll, many parents say that's exactly what they tell their children. But that can backfire.

Kristi King is a registered dietitian and spokesperson with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

KRISTI KING: Some of the studies have shown us that when they are put in a situation where somebody is saying finish this or finish that, the kids actually had more negative responses and actually consumed less of the food than the kids who didn't have that reinforcement of - you need to finish.

NEIGHMOND: The better option: creative negotiation. Take what King calls Try It Tuesdays.

KING: So that would be little kids, teenagers, school-age children helping the parents pick a new food or a vegetable and that everybody tries it together.

NEIGHMOND: And maybe, if you let your children choose and even help prepare the food, the more likely they are to try it. If they still say no, King suggests No Thank You Bites, something her friends made up for their three-year-old daughter.

KING: She has to take a bite and say no thank you before she can, you know, just not eat it at all.

NEIGHMOND: And more often than not, there's an unexpected reward.

KING: As she sits there and watches me and her mom and her dad eat that food, you see her little hand reach across over to the fork and it kind of goes over into the vegetable and then the next thing you know you turn around and she's eaten the entire vegetable.

NEIGHMOND: And it turns out that like most other behaviors, your kids are watching you.

KING: I had a parent who came into clinic not too long ago and I said, OK well, what's our goal for being here today? And he looked at me and said, make him eat vegetables; and my question back was, well, do you eat vegetables? And his answer was, no. I don't like them.

NEIGHMOND: They talked. Turned out Dad loved grilling. King suggested he start grilling vegetables. By their next visit he'd become an avid veggie griller.

KING: Oh, he was grilling zucchini and squash and carrots and onions and tomatoes, and you name it, he was grilling it.

NEIGHMOND: A dietitian's dream - getting an entire family involved in eating more healthy foods. As for dessert, well, Yale University's Kelly Brownell says there's nothing wrong with an occasional treat.

BROWNELL: But that doesn't mean that the only options for dessert are things high in sugar, or fat, or salt. There can be wonderful combinations of things like sorbet, sherbet, fruits, things like that, that can make outstanding desserts and be really good for people.

NEIGHMOND: Some parents worry that having only healthy foods at home will lead kids to overdo it with junk food when they head off to college. But Brownell says there's no evidence to support this worry. Even if kids indulge in unhealthy foods at first, they're far more likely to return to the healthy foods they grew up with.

BROWNELL: Having only good foods around the house makes all the sense in the world and research supports this, and then kids will eat the healthy foods.

NEIGHMOND: So, Brownell says, fill your kitchen with healthy food. Don't buy junk food. And watch what you eat. Your kids will follow your lead.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.