Four-year-old Corey Hickey sat down at the kitchen table earlier this week to a Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles plate filled with tortellini, watermelon, grapes and broccoli. He playfully dug his fork into the pasta and fruit, downing piece after piece, and exclaimed “Yummy” as his mom plopped down a Spider-Man glass filled with milk.
Then came time for the broccoli.
Corey gingerly plopped a floret into his mouth. His eyes grew wide, then scrunched to a close. His face twisted. In a flash, he spit the floret back onto the plate and abandoned it warily along with its green kin.
“Fruit is never a problem,” said his mother, Josette. “It’s the vegetables.”
She understands. She loathed most vegetables – save green beans – until her college days. On the other hand, her younger son, Garett, 2, is a veggie fanatic.
With two kids so different, what is a mother to do? How can parents encourage all of their kids – including the fussiest – to eat fruits, vegetables and a panoply of other helpful foods?
It’s a conundrum Myles Faith has looked to untangle during his professional career.
Faith, a married father of two boys ages 5 and 6, is professor and associate chairman of counseling, school and educational psychology in the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education. Much of his research at the University of Pennsylvania, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and, since last year UB, has focused on how families can help children to grow up healthy and well.
He and fellow researchers across the country already know that both genetic and environmental forces shape food preferences – and that children in the same family can range greatly when it comes to a taste for certain foods.
Here’s what they also know about getting kids to eat right: “There’s really no evidence that pressuring, coercing and punishing are effective. If anything, they can undermine efforts,” Faith said.
Instead, he urges positive approaches to make adults “agents of change” for healthier child food choices. Here’s how.
1. Play a leading role
Josette Hickey, director of banquets and catering for her family’s restaurant, Salvatore’s Italian Gardens in Lancaster, said she became a healthier eater as an adult. Her husband, Brett, a personal trainer and owner of Buffalo’s Ultimate Fitness Facility (BUFF) in Clarence, has always enjoyed a variety of foods, though he still remembers being forced to sit at the dinner table for three hours as a child because he wouldn’t eat his squash. At this point in their parenting lives, it’s easy to eat vegetables along with Garett and show Corey that it’s OK.
“Parent role-modeling is really important, and very often parents will not eat some healthy foods in front of their kids,” Faith said. “Understanding that parents are busy and juggling many responsibilities, as parents try to sort out what might work, actually trying to eat those foods in front of the children, with the children, is something that should be tried – with repeated and consistent effort. If the parents aren’t doing it consistently, the kids aren’t getting role-model exposure.”
Grandmas, grandpas and others also can help. “Anyone in the family can be an agent of change and can all play a role in helping one another,” Faith said. “The more the whole family is on board, the better.” Corey’s uncles, Nicholas and Russell Salvatore, often have the most success getting Corey to try vegetables, Josette Hickey said. She and her husband said they believe such encouragement – along with an available diet rich in fruits, lean proteins, whole grains, and yes, vegetables – will shape diets for both of their sons in the long run.
2. Repeat, repeat, repeat
Humans are wired to avoid new foods. “Food neophobia is a trait,” Faith said. “You can think of it in terms of height and weight. Kids differ in the extent they are fearful of new foods, or not. A lot of this is genetic in nature but not all of it, so things in the environment do make a difference.”
Keep encouraging children to try healthy foods – often, Faith said. “A few times will not cut it,” he said. “Ongoing exposure in different ways is a good idea. The family has to creatively figure that out.” He recommended serving a vegetable alone, as part of an entree or as a snack. The Hickeys use a spiralizer to turn carrots, zucchini and other veggies into pasta-style dishes with red sauce. “You know what else is great for hiding vegetables? Pizza on a wheat shell and juicing,” Josette Hickey said.
3. Portion control counts
Research shows that children will eat more, or less, depending on the amount of food put in front of them. “So caregivers might supersize the fruit and vegetable portions, while reducing the portions of less healthy foods,” Faith said. “We might call this ‘strategic nudging.’ ” The Hickeys said they never eat a family meal without serving vegetables, and always include a healthy choice all can agree on, like sweet potatoes.
4. Foster choice
“What are ways to promote choice, even in the realm of healthier eating? Rather than saying, ‘Do you want a cookie or a piece of broccoli?,’ you say, ‘Apples, bananas, pears – pick one,’ ” Faith said. He also encouraged parents to ask their children to help make a shopping list that includes a variety of healthy choices. Like adults, Faith said, “children do have a sense of autonomy. They want to have choices and they have preferences.”
5. Keep it positive
“Praise is really important,” Faith said, as is positive reinforcement. Bribery? It’s overblown. “I’ve had parents ask, ‘Dr. Faith, do I have to go out and get a prize for every time my child has a fruit and vegetable?’ No, but what has struck me is that some of the most powerful incentives for kids are a pat on the back, a high five, a smile, a hug, time with a parent playing. Kids really crave that.”
6. Involve the kids“The more we get our children into different activities, including selecting foods, the better the experience,” Faith said. Take them to the grocery store, a farm stand or farmers market, he said. Play a scavenger hunt for different color foods. When children have their own grocery bag or cart, “they’re not just being dragged along; they’re being part of the experience.”
Lynn Mason, a playground architect, plants a vegetable garden at her Hamburg home and asks her three young children to help tend it. It has made her children more adventurous at mealtime. “We grow Brussels sprouts and squash and zucchini,” she said, “and pull carrots out of the ground, and it does work.”
The Hickeys often ask their boys to help prepare meals, too. That is often the time Garett starts to sample cucumbers, carrots and other vegetables.
Faith also recommended families eat together – at the table, in a TV- and electronics-free zone. “There is research that family meals make for better, nutritious meals,” he said.
He underlined that helping kids eat healthier is a process – turning what can often be a mindless activity into something “mindful, planned and effortful.”
“This is a very fast-paced world and parents have enormous demands on them,” he said. “To do this does require taking a step back, reflecting and a strategy. What are the ways to provide exposure, shop for and bring to the home healthier foods? Even with individual differences, it does need to be learned, taught. There needs to be consistency, patience, with ongoing persistence.”
For the fussiest eaters, “it may require more patience and more ongoing effort and understanding – understanding that some of the fussiness and pickiness does have a biological basis,” Faith said. “But the principles still remain and there’s been a lot of good studies on exposure to foods and positive parenting praise.”
The payoff can be worth it for all.
“A family works best as a team,” Faith said, “and kids can be really inspirational to their parents, too.”
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon