Lentils will help you run faster: communicating food benefits gets kids to eat healthier

VANCOUVER, Wash. – “Eat your vegetables!”

3 photos combined. The first is a little girl, the second a little boy, the third a little girl. All are making yucky faces as they eat something.
Children in Vancouver, Wash. take part in the study that found using certain phrases encourages kids to eat healthy foods.

It’s a common refrain that many people may remember from childhood and it’s not the best way to get kids to eat their greens. That led scientists from Washington State University and Florida State University to study the best way to communicate to children about the importance of eating healthy foods.

Previous research shows that offering foods repeatedly increases the likelihood that kids will try something new. But that research didn’t look at the context of those offerings, said WSU Department of Human Development associate professor Jane Lanigan.

Lanigan and her colleagues ran a series of experiments offering healthy foods to a group of three- to-five-year-old children for seven weeks. They focused on what phrases were used when the foods were presented to the kids, called Child-Centered Nutrition Phrases (CCNP).

“We found that a month later, the kids hearing the CCNP with the repeated exposures to the food ate the healthy foods significantly more than those who just got the food without the positive words,” Lanigan said.

The results were published May 8 in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

That doesn’t mean you just tell a child that food is healthy, which “is too abstract for a pre-schooler,” she said.

A graphic with four different affirming phrases parents can use when offering healthy foods to kids.
Sample phrases to use when serving kids healthy foods.

“For example, when we presented lentils we would say ‘This will help you grow bigger and run faster,’” Lanigan said.

Similar affirming statements could help parents get their children interested in eating healthier at a key stage in their development.

“We know that food habits that are developed in early childhood set a pattern for eating habits that continue well into adulthood,” Lanigan said. “We hope if we can start kids at this age eating healthier, it will help reduce the obesity epidemic in our country.”

The phrases focus on goals children have and are based on accurate nutrition information, she said.

“Every child wants to be bigger, faster, able to jump higher,” Lanigan said. “Using those types of examples made the food more attractive to eat.”

Experimental design

The actual experiment was fairly complex. Four foods were chosen from different food groups including, green peppers (vegetable), tomatoes (vegetable), quinoa (grain), and lentils (protein). Each of the 87 children in the experiment ranked how much they liked each food.

The kids were offered two lesser liked foods twice a week. Over the seven-week experiment, they presented the participants one of their low-rated foods with pre-selected age-appropriate facts about the benefits of the food. The other food was merely given to them. A coin flip determined which food would be paired with the CCNP.

The testing was built into the kids’ normal class routine, Lanigan said.

Portrait photo of Dr. Lanigan.
Jane Lanigan

They measured how much the kids ate at three times: pre-test, post-test, and one month after the study ended. The immediate post-test showed no result, likely because the kids “got sick of eating the same foods,” Lanigan said.

Results and impact

The month-after measurement told a different story.

“The kids ate twice as much of their CCNP food as the food they had just been given with no information,” Lanigan said.

Parents can take these results and hopefully incorporate positive phrases into their meals. Over time, this study shows that kids are likely to increase the amounts they eat of the healthier foods.

“I have two kids and I probably could have done things differently when trying to get them to eat healthier,” Lanigan said. “We wanted to fill a gap, where parents are often told what their kids should be eating but not how to get them to eat it. And that’s really important.”