Whether eating carrots will improve eyesight or consuming spinach will build Popeye-like strength is immaterial to children. In fact, telling them such things as a way of coaxing them to eat certain foods actually repels them, according to a study in the October 2014 issue of Consumer Research.
Research led by University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor Ayelet Fishbach, PhD, pinpoints the crux of the issue: Kids reject nourishing food simply because they know it’s good for them. Once they’ve heard the “healthy” value proposition, they assume the food won’t taste good. The study demonstrates that informing preschoolers that a certain food will help them to achieve a goal (running faster, learning to read, gaining strength) decreases their interest in consuming that food.
“The preschoolers seem to think that food can’t serve two purposes—that it can’t be something that makes them healthier and something that is delicious to eat at the same time,” Fishbach notes. “So telling them that the carrots will make them grow tall (or make them smarter) actually makes them not want to eat the carrots. If you want them to eat the carrots, you should just give the kids the carrots and either mention that they are tasty or just say nothing.”
Fishbach points out that this study focused on very young children, and older kids may react differently to healthful food associations. “We should keep in mind that older children might rely less on taste when making food decisions due to higher self-control,” she said. “On the other hand, we all know teenagers who only eat six foods, so it could turn out that their thinking is similar to their younger counterparts.”