How can you get kids to eat what you want them to -- no more, no less? We dropped in at dinnertime to see how a top nutrition expert handles it with his young daughters.
Family of Foodies
Whenever I take out my good china, I think of Brian Wansink, Ph.D. Three years ago, I tagged along on some research he was doing at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to see whether women would eat more lunch if it were served on a fancy plate rather than on a cheap plain one. I joked that if his theory panned out (it did), I should put all of my daughter's vegetables on Lenox. But Dr. Wansink, author of more than 300 research papers and the best seller Mindless Eating, takes eating behavior very seriously. "I think children are influenced by how their food is presented just as much as adults are," he said. "I just don't have the studies to support it yet."
Now, after doing research in preschools and summer camps, he has come up with a bunch of subtle ways to get kids to eat more healthy foods and fewer junky ones -- which is one of the keys to preventing childhood obesity. He invited me back to hear all the details, this time over dinner at his home with his wife, Jennifer, and their two girls, Audrey, 4, and Valerie, 18 months at the time of my visit. He also slipped in the fact that Jennifer has a culinary degree (from Le Cordon Bleu, the famous French cooking school, no less). Dinner promised to be delicious as well as informative.
We're all settling in the living room when Audrey says she's thirsty. Jennifer doesn't ask her what she wants to drink - - she simply brings her water. "We always have water with dinner and skim milk with our breakfast and lunch," says Jennifer, putting down the biggest cup I've ever seen anyone give a little kid. It must hold at least 20 ounces. "Is Audrey going to drink all that?" I ask Dr. Wansink, marveling that she hasn't spilled a drop yet. "No, but she might drink eight or nine ounces of water from this cup compared with four or five if we poured her drink in a smaller one," he says. "We're finding that children, just like adults, will eat or drink much more of something if they get a bigger portion of it."
Before I have a chance to ask whether this applies to vegetables, he brings it up. "I know a lot of parents who put a couple of carrots or green beans on their kid's plate and tell him just to eat these few. "What happens? He ends up eating one or two. Don't be afraid to pile on one-quarter or even one-third cup of veggies -- that's the proper portion range for young kids," says Dr. Wansink, who helped develop the food pyramid for preschoolers when he took a break from Cornell last year to serve as executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, in Alexandria, Virginia. "But you don't want to put on more than that amount because you want children to get to know what a proper serving looks like."
It's cool to know that there are ways to get your child to eat more of something. But what if you want her to have less? While my daughter no longer gives me a hard time about eating almost any kind of veggie, she usually asks for refills of orange juice and seconds of strawberry sorbet. One serving of each of these daily is absolutely fine; another, however, is too many calories for a young child. So I ask him how to get kids to be satisfied with the initial portion.
He takes me into the kitchen, swings open the cabinet, and pulls out two eight-ounce bowls decorated with butterflies and flowers. "We put the girls' snacks in these," he says. "We fill them to the top, and the kids think they're getting a lot. If the bowls were bigger, they'd want more." A lot more, in fact. In one study, Dr. Wansink let preschoolers decide how much sweetened cereal to pour. They asked for 45 percent more when the bowl was 18 ounces as opposed to 12. "You might think that the kids wouldn't finish all that they poured in the bigger bowl," he says. "But that wasn't the case at all."
For juice, Dr. Wansink has another trick -- tall, thin glasses. He says they give kids the illusion that they're drinking more than they really are. He asks if my daughter is old enough to pour her own OJ (yes -- she's 6). Then he speculates that she'll fill a tall, thin glass with a lot less juice than a short, fat one, even if they both hold the same number of ounces. He says that in one experiment at a summer camp, kids filled the taller glasses with about 5 1/2 ounces of juice and the wider ones with almost ten. That's about a 60-calorie difference. I'm getting some thin glasses tomorrow. But I'll keep my wider glasses for milk and water, things most kids don't drink enough of.
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.
After eating a little bit of turkey and some broccoli, Audrey asks to get up from the table. Valerie wants out of the high chair too. Even though the kids (especially Valerie) didn't seem to eat much, there was no talk of one more bite from either parent -- let alone the request for the kids to clean their plate. "The girls ate well at breakfast and lunch," Jennifer says. "Besides," Dr. Wansink chimes in, "that discussion can be damaging. You'd think that children whose parents insist they clean their plate wouldn't serve themselves as much if they had the chance. But recent pediatric research found that these kids actually take and eat 31 percent more food than children whose parents don't have that rule. It can pack on so much extra weight."
"Do you let the girls eat fast food?" I ask, already knowing that McDonald's is one of Dr. Wansink's favorite spots for breakfast. (The first time I came to visit, he took me there for a fruit-and-yogurt parfait -- his usual pick.) "We go for lunch or dinner once in a while, but we're very careful about what they have," he says. "They get a hamburger instead of the chicken nuggets because it has less fat and more iron; plus they'll have apple slices rather than french fries." At full service restaurants, the couple says they usually bypass the fried food-laden, veggie-vacant kids' menu and order an appetizer for the children or let them split an adult entree.
I could pick the Wansinks' brains for another couple of hours -- not to mention keep eating this awesome dinner. But it's getting to be the kids' bedtime and I don't want to overstay my welcome. When I head back into the living room to say good night to the girls, I notice that Audrey's enormous water cup is at least half empty. I thought she must have spilled some. "What happened to your water?" I ask her. "I drank it," she says. "It's good."
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Parents magazine.