Even without formal training, parents know the drill: no broccoli, no dessert. If Little Johnny lashes out in open revolt, launching broccoli across the room, bring out the big guns. Tell him that broccoli is not only yummy, but that it will make him healthy and strong.
But what seems like a sound strategy to prod a child into eating healthy might do more harm than good. Might emphasizing the benefits of food to young children—for example, telling them that eating vegetables will make them grow big and strong—actually deter them from wanting to eat these foods? “If you push young kids to eat healthy or even neutral food by presenting a message as to what benefits the food gives them, they eat less,” says Michal Maimaran, a visiting assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management.
Maimaran’s research shows that kids between the ages of three and five will eat less of a food if it is associated with some sort of goal, such as becoming healthier or a better reader. It is much better, Maimaran argues, not to send any message or, if applicable, to emphasize the tastiness of the food. For people tasked with marketing products to young children, the implications of Maimaran’s research are straightforward. Kids will make negative inferences on the spot about a food’s tastiness if its “good-for-you” benefits are emphasized.
“Saying the food is yummy does not hurt, but it doesn’t help either … It is best to say nothing about the food—simply serve it without saying what goal the food might serve.”
The First Course
Across five experiments conducted at an Evanston-area daycare, Maimaran and her colleague, Ayelet Fishbach, of the University of Chicago, determined that even three- to five-year-olds judge the tastiness of food, and adjust how much of it they eat, based on messages they receive about the food.
Take their second experiment, where a group of 49 children split into two groups were read different variations of the same illustrated short story about a girl named Tara. In the first version, Tara ate Wheat Thins crackers for a snack. She “felt strong and healthy” and had “all the energy she needed to play outside.” The second version of the story had Tara eating Wheat Thins and heading outside to play. The results? The children who were led to believe that eating Wheat Thins would make them strong ate about half the amount of crackers eaten by the kids who were not given any message about the benefits of Wheat Thins.
Why are messages that involve instrumental benefits like healthiness so ineffective? As Maimaran and Fishbach write, children “learn through experience that food presented as healthy is less tasty and thus consume less of it.” More generally, children tend to believe that foods cannot serve dual purposes. When an instrumental benefit is touted, children may see that as the only benefit of the food—and therefore think that the food is not tasty—making them less inclined to eat it.
The latter might explain why the association with flavorlessness is not limited to health benefits. Academic benefits, like becoming a better reader or counter, are also suspect. “Even when we present food as a tool to achieve a new goal that the kids do not spontaneously associate the food with, we find that kids eat less. For example, in experiments three and four we say the girl in the story thinks the carrots will help her know [how] to read or count. Kids in our research still made the inference that if food is good for that goal, it cannot be good for another goal: taste,” Maimaran says. “And they end up eating less than kids who learn the girl in the story simply eats the carrots, without any goal message, or when the girl thinks the carrots are yummy.”
Speak No Evil
To stem the tide of children-led dinner rebellions, emphasizing a food’s taste over its instrumental benefits is more effective. The same strategy goes for the marketing community whose advertising targets such young children. “When marketing directly to kids at this age, it’s best not to emphasize any benefit or goals that the food can give them, but rather focus on the experience of eating it,” Maimaran says. Pleasurable or otherwise positive experiences are immediately beneficial to us, after all, while instrumental benefits are only felt long after a meal is consumed.
But thereis a better strategy than focusing on taste when it comes to getting young kids to eat what adults know to be healthy food. “Saying the food is yummy does not hurt, but it doesn’t help either,” she says. “My research shows that it is best to say nothing about the food—simply serve it without saying what goal the food might serve.”
Of course, it is possible that children between three and five years old simply do not put much stock in the specific instrumental benefits tested in the studies. In post-tests, Maimaran and Fishbach directly asked kids in that age range how important the goals from the stories were (being strong, knowing how to read and count), as well as how important other presumably desirable goals were (being handsome or pretty, having a lot of friends). The value the kids assigned to looking attractive or being popular was no different from the value the kids assigned to the instrumental benefits tested, suggesting that children do in fact care about these health and academic goals—they just do not respond to them at dinnertime.
Just Eat It
The policy implications of this research are important, Maimaran argues, as businesses think more about how to get kids to eat healthier products. “You want to avoid attaching any instrumental message to the food,” she says. “You do not want to present the food as serving goals.” Even if a marketing firm wished to manipulate children’s expectations to push them toward healthier food—say, by telling them eating a certain food would make them big and strong—the effort would likely fail. So when it comes to images or language used in advertising, keep it simple and neutral. Pictures of boys and girls on a playground are fine, but be wary of photos that show kids counting or reading.
Teenagers, who can process information in a more complex manner, are a different story. “They’re able to understand that if some food is good for one thing, it might also be tasty for them,” Maimaran says. But for parents of three- to five-year-olds, keep it simple. Do as Maimaran has begun doing with her three young children. “Simply serve the food without any message,” she says.
Artwork by Yevgenia Nayberg