Do you think healthy food tastes bad? Chances are the answer is yes. Even if you think that you think healthy foods are tasty, you probably don't. Quick, which tastes better: broccoli or chips? See what I mean? Sure you might have really enjoyed that great salad you ate last week, but, research shows that, in general, Americans think: Broccoli=bad; Chips=Good.1
No wonder it’s so hard to teach kids to eat right. Almost every interaction parents have with their children around food reinforces the message that “good” food is bad and that “bad” food is good. “You have to eat your peas before you can have dessert.” “Good job on that test! Let’s celebrate with ice cream!” (Ever given your kids the chocolate cake look—you know the one I mean—when you're serving something healthy?)
Recently, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group, released a report card on the American diet.2 It was pretty bad. Let’s just say it’s not the kind of report card you’d want to reward with a cookie.
You know the drill: We’re consuming too many calories, not enough fruits and vegetables, too much sugar, and too much fat. We’re also consuming too many grains. Not just too many refined grains, either. We're eating way too many grains. Period. By one estimate, we’d have to reduce our total grain intake by about 27% to meet dietary guidelines.3
The typical response to this kind of news from health professionals, journalists, etc. is to exhort people to pay more attention to nutrition. (As far as I can tell, the typical response from the public is a big snooze.) But what if nutrition education isn’t part of the solution? What if it’s part of the problem?
In France, nutrition education isn’t stressed nearly as much as it is here. Indeed, one study found that the French were 10 times more ignorant than Americans about dietary fats.4 And guess what? The French don’t think healthy food tastes bad!5
So what can you do if you’re trying to teach your kids to eat right? Well, the first thing would be to stop worrying so much about how much broccoli your child eats at any given meal. That makes parents do crazy things. Instead, start looking at big picture patterns.
If you're like most American parents you serve your kids grains constantly. Add up all the bread, bagels, cereals, crackers, pretzels, granola bars, cookies, pasta, pizza, tacos, rice, popcorn, and other grain-stuff and you'll see what I mean. It doesn't matter if you're serving whole grains; stop serving so much. That way you can start shifting the ratios.
Then, stop bribing your kids with the "good" stuff (i.e. the brownies) to get them to eat the "good" stuff (i.e. their broccoli). Instead, encourage fruit and vegetable consumption by serving it more frequently (like at every meal and snack). Why? Eating is really a matter of math: The more familiar your kids become with fruits and vegetables the more they'll eat them. (Also, your kids can't eat what you don't serve.)
Finally, remember that pressuring kids to eat something they don't want only makes them want to eat that food even less. And that's one reason Americans think healthy food tastes bad.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~
© 2013 Dina Rose, PhD author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Dina’s book, It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating is scheduled for release January, 2014.
1 Raghunathan, R., R. Walker Naylor, and W. D. Hoyer. 2006. “The Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition and Its Effects on Taste Inferences, Enjoyment, and Choice of Food Products.” Journal of Marketing 70: 170-84.
2 Liebman, B. 2013. “The Changing American Diet: a Report Card.” Nutrition Action Newsletter 40(7): 10-11. Center for Science in the Public Interest.
3 Buzby, J. C., H. F. Wells, and G. Vocke. 2006. “Possible Implications for U.S. Agriculture From Adoption of Select Dietary Guidelines.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Report Number 31.
4 Saulais, L., M. Doyon, B. Ruffieux, and H. Kaiser. 2012. “Consumer Knowledge About Dietary Fats: Another French Paradox?” British Food Journal 114 (1): 108-20.
5 Werle, C. O. C., O. Trendel, and G. Ardito. 2013. “Unhealthy Food is Not Tastier for Everybody: the "Health=Tasty" French Intuition.” Food Quality and Preference 28: 116-21.