The Scoop on Food

Want Your Kids to Eat Healthy Food? Stop Calling It Healthy

When you're trying to instill good eating habits, too much "healthy" hype can backfire.

little girl eating an apple pavla/Shutterstock
"This chicken will make you big and strong!"

"Try some carrots; they're so good for your eyes!"

"Drink your milk if you want to grow tall!"

Most parents have given their kids this kind of healthy food hard sell at the dinner table. I've certainly talked up the health benefits of certain foods with my two kids. But it turns out that hyping foods for their health perks can actually backfire.

In one study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers read two different versions of a story to preschoolers about a little girl who ate crackers. In one version, the crackers were described as helping the girl be healthy and strong. In the other version, the crackers were described as being yummy.

When the kids were offered crackers after hearing the story, guess which group ate the fewest? The ones who heard the story about how healthy the crackers were. Compared to the other group, they also rated the crackers as being less tasty.

"Americans have an inherent bias against foods labeled 'healthy,' and we pass this bias on to children at a very early age," says Dina Rose, Ph.D., author of It's Not About The Broccoli. That makes sense: Think of all the marketing messages we hear about a food product being "too delicious to be nutritious" or "so good you'd never guess it had a serving a vegetables in it!"

Dr. Rose cites another study with kids ages 9 to 11 in which researchers presented two drinks: one labeled as a "new health drink" and one as a "new drink." The kids rated the "healthy" drink as being less pleasant and said they were less likely to ask their parents to buy it compared to the other drink.

But talking up a food's tastiness may encourage kids to enjoy it more. In the crackers study, the preschoolers who heard the story about the "yummy" crackers ate twice as many as those who heard about "healthy" crackers.

"Rather than talk about health, parents ought to emphasize taste," says Dr. Rose. "One reason children like cake is that we talk about how delicious it is. We need to apply that same logic to healthy food." She suggests going beyond "This is yummy!" to using the same kind of descriptive words you'd use to describe treats, like "creamy" or as having "the perfect crunch."

But sometimes, silence is golden. Consider just presenting the healthy food and not saying a thing. In the crackers research, kids who didn't hear any story at all ate the most out of everyone.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.