Kids can have their cake and their broccoli too

Capitalize on children’s appreciation for variety to encourage healthy eating

Credit: Domenic Bahmann

Margaret Echelbarger

Margaret Echelbarger | Jul 29, 2020

Before leaving her children in my care one evening, a babysitting client of mine once playfully told her young son, “There’s a party in your stomach, and the peas want to join.” I thought it so clever that I called my own mother to relay the message. 

I can certainly understand why this mother was so adamant that her son eat his peas: preschoolers in the United States regularly fall short of their recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. At the same time, research conducted by the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity demonstrates that the majority of ads children view on television promote unhealthy products (e.g., fast food, sugary drinks, sweets), perhaps exacerbating existing difficulties parents have coaxing children to eat their greens. For this reason, among others, it is important to arm adults with tools and strategies they can use to help children make healthier food choices and combat the negative effects of unhealthy-food marketing.

As it happens, this mother was a bit ahead of the research curve. Northwestern’s Michal Maimaran and Chicago Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach have found that framing foods as “healthy” led preschoolers to both consume less and rate foods as less tasty than when those foods were framed as “yummy” or offered with no messaging at all. That is, trying to entice preschoolers to eat their vegetables because they will “make them big and strong” does not encourage them to eat more, but rather less.

Like Maimaran and Fishbach, I am also interested in improving children’s well-being. Rather than test the effectiveness of food framing on preschoolers’ consumption and taste ratings, Maimaran, University of Michigan’s Susan A. Gelman, and I examined the degree to which children’s preference for variety can be leveraged to promote better food choices. 

Leveraging variety

Why variety? First, in an earlier study, Gelman and I find that children 4–12 years old prefer variety to nonvariety when selecting among objects. This suggests that children may similarly prefer varied versus nonvaried offerings of foods. Second, exposure to more varied foods during the preschool years is associated with more varied diets in adulthood, and more varied diets are often healthier. So, offering children more varied foods earlier in life may positively influence their dietary preferences. Third, and consistent with this last point, research by Cornell’s David R. Just, Brigham Young University’s Joseph Price, and former BYU research assistant Jesse Lund suggests simply increasing the number of fruits and vegetables offered (i.e., offering a wider variety of foods) during lunch increases elementary school–aged children’s consumption of these items. In short, testing the ways in which we can harness children’s preference for variety can inform our efforts to help children make healthier food choices.

Across three studies with 329 children, we explored the conditions under which 4–9-year-olds would diversify their food selections of healthy (e.g., fruits, vegetables), neutral (e.g., crackers), and unhealthy (e.g., chips, candy) foods and opt for healthier combinations of foods. 

Children across the age range were more likely to diversify their selections when they made their snack choices all on one day versus once a day for the week.

In our first two studies, we tested the degree to which preference (preferring one of two items versus not) and product category (healthy, neutral, unhealthy) affected children’s variety selections. To do this, we introduced children to two foods (e.g., broccoli and carrot) on a computer screen and asked them to indicate which of the two they liked more or whether they liked them the same. We then presented children with three sets comprising those foods (e.g., broccoli + broccoli, carrot + carrot, and broccoli + carrot). The children were then asked to indicate which of the sets they would like for themselves. In the first study, foods were paired according to product type—healthy foods were paired with healthy foods, neutral with neutral, and so on. In the second study, foods were paired across two categories: healthy foods were paired with neutral foods, meaning that selecting variety now required also selecting a fruit or vegetable. 

Given no strong preference, children select variety

In the first study, when foods were grouped by product category, we find that children across our age range were over 13 times more likely to choose a variety of foods (e.g., broccoli + carrot) when they did not prefer one food to another versus when they did. This means that children who indicated liking broccoli and carrots similarly were more likely to choose the broccoli + carrot combination than two broccolis or two carrots; it was just the opposite for children who indicated preferring broccoli or carrots. Interestingly, product category didn’t matter—that is, children were similarly likely to vary their selections for healthy, neutral, and unhealthy foods.

In the second study, when healthy and neutral foods were paired (e.g., broccoli + cheese crackers), this effect was smaller. In this case, only our 6–9-year-olds were more likely to select a variety of foods after indicating no preference for either food item. We observed no difference in variety selections across preference levels by our 4–5-year-olds. This suggests that there is a limit to the degree to which varying offerings encourages preschool-aged children to diversify their selections. For this reason, parents may consider grouping less-familiar foods from the same category (such as fruits) to encourage children to increase their willingness to try both.

The power of simultaneous selections

In our third and final study, we tested whether the way in which children 4–9 years old selected snacks for the school week influenced not only the degree to which they diversified their selections but also increased their selection of healthy foods (in this case, fruits). To do this, we assigned children to one of two experimental groups: simultaneous (wherein children selected their five snacks for the week on one day) or sequential (wherein children selected one snack each day for the school week). Because this study used real food, we only included healthy (i.e., fruits) and neutral (i.e., crackers) foods, for ethical reasons.

Children across the age range were more likely to diversify their selections when they made their snack choices all on one day versus once a day for the week. In fact, 49 percent of children in the simultaneous group versus 9 percent in the sequential group selected the maximum of five different items. Additionally, children in the simultaneous group selected more fruits than children in the sequential condition (1.87 versus 1.08). Interestingly, we observed no age group differences, suggesting that choice timing may be a reliable avenue through which to encourage even young children to make healthier food choices.

Strategies for helping children select healthy foods

Overall, our findings suggest two strategies to help children incorporate healthier food into their diets. First, consider introducing children to unfamiliar foods in groups to increase the likelihood that children will try multiple foods. Introducing foods in groups also increases the likelihood that children will enjoy at least one of the foods offered. Second, when giving children autonomy over their food selections, consider asking them to make multiple selections at once (e.g., snacks they will eat throughout the week) rather than asking them to make individual choices each day. Consider asking children to select from a variety of healthy snacks to increase the likelihood that they will opt to diversify their selections. 

That said, creating the conditions under which children can have a variety of options can be quite difficult. It may not be possible to prepare and offer an array of foods. In this case, parents may consider setting their children up for success by offering a desired food (e.g., orange slices) and asking children what they would like to pair with it (e.g., a graham cracker or celery stick). Additionally (or alternatively), parents can welcome their children to join in in preparing foods via their direct selection of things to eat, assembling their plate, or even shaking up the salad dressing. We know from work by Gelman, University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Jasmine DeJesus, University of Michigan’s Julie C. Lumeng, and former University of Michigan grad student Isabella Herold that allowing children to participate in food preparation in this way increases their consumption of those foods.

For companies, there is a pressing need to support children and their families as they work to meet their nutritional needs. As our results suggest, packaging different flavors or foods together can nudge children toward making better selections (e.g., opting for a package of blueberries and grapes versus a single bag of crackers). At the same time, given that children’s preference for variety did not differ by product type, responsible companies and marketers should not use children’s preference for variety to encourage unhealthier selections.

Margaret Echelbarger is a postdoctoral researcher at Chicago Booth’s Center for Decision Research.