Jennifer calls everyone into the dining room to have an appetizer -- steamed mussels in a garlic sauce. Before I can get my napkin on my lap, Audrey is snatching a shell and Valerie is banging on her high chair, pointing at the bowl. "So it looks like the girls are adventurous eaters," I say.
"We've been working on it since they were babies," says Dr. Wansink. "We used to sprinkle cinnamon, nutmeg, and other spices on their Cheerios to get them used to the different flavors. We're pretty happy with the variety of foods they eat." He says he's been going all out since he studied whether preschoolers who eat a wide range of healthy foods at home also make nutritious choices when their parents aren't around. Turns out that these children help themselves to fewer snacks and select more nutritious meals than picky kids do.
Still, Dr. Wansink admits that Audrey isn't as eager to try new foods as she was when she was younger. "I call ages 4 to 8 the hibernation period," he says. "It can feel like a kid's taste buds just go dormant." What brings on the change? While Dr. Wansink says he doesn't know for sure, he has an interesting theory. "Around age 4, parents start to enforce the rule that kids have to use utensils," he says. "I think that kids get less enjoyment out of food because they're not eating with their hands." He lowers his voice. "When I'm alone with the girls, I let them eat with their hands -- even spaghetti. Jennifer doesn't know. She'd think it was more important to teach them good manners." I tell him that I see where she's coming from and ask if there are any other options. "Letting kids help in the kitchen might do the trick," he says. "We don't have all the details on this yet, but in one study I'm finding that 4- to 8-year-olds eat more vegetables and more salad when they have a hand in preparing them."
"Hey, Jennifer, what do you make with the girls?" Dr. Wansink shouts into the kitchen.
The kids like to make veggie pizza and vegetable dumplings, a favorite from Jennifer's childhood in Taiwan, she reports.
As she's setting down dinner for us (mustard-glazed turkey tenderloin and two vegetable sides), Audrey starts shouting: "Dinosaur Trees, Dinosaur Trees," Looks like broccoli florets to me. "We give all our vegetables fun names," explains Dr. Wansink. "In one experiment I did, preschoolers ate twice as many vegetables when we called them things like X-Ray Vision Carrots, Power Peas, Tomato Bursts, and, yes, Dinosaur Trees." Interestingly, Dr. Wansink says the benefit doesn't seem to wear off; children respond to the name the 30th time they hear it just as enthusiastically as they did the first time.
Although Dr. Wansink hasn't directly studied this idea, Jennifer usually makes two different kinds of vegetables for dinner so the children can have a choice. "They seem to respond better when they feel like they're part of the decision-making process," she says. "Sometimes they actually end up eating both kinds." Jennifer also points out that it really isn't any extra work because she always makes enough to have the vegetables another night later in the week too.