The more you push healthy food because it’s healthy, the less kids want to eat it.
The message is loud and clear: If healthy food were good, we’d talk about how good it was. But we don’t, we talk about how healthy it is.
This is what I call the Medicalization of the Meal. Ever give broccoli the Chocolate Cake Look? You know what I mean!
Here’s the theory: We’re talking about Experiential Benefits vs Instrumental Benefits.
You can enjoy food because…
- It’s a good experience (i.e. it tastes good). This is called an Experiential Benefit.
- It is instrumental in advancing another goal. This is called an instrumental Benefit.
Research shows that when people focus on an activity’s instrumental benefit, they enjoy it less.
You might think that you could “sell” healthy food by talking up both its experiential and its instrumental benefits: “Yummmm, this broccoli is so tasty. It’s also really good for you!”
But research shows that people believe if something will help them achieve an instrumental benefit, it can’t also be effective in achieving a positive experience.
Here’s the study.
Three different groups of 4-5 year old preschoolers are told a story during which Tara eats Wheat Thins either because they’re healthy, they’re tasty, or for no specific reasons.
- In the healthy condition, “Tara felt strong and healthy, and she had all the energy…”
- In the yummy condition, “Tara thought the crackers were yummy, and she was happy…”
The healthy=bad effect happened and we’re talking about crackers, not carrots.
After hearing the story, the children were offered a chance to eat Wheat Thins crackers.
- Children in the “healthy” group ate fewer crackers than children in the “yummy” or the “no-story” group.
- There was no difference in consumption between the “yummy” and the “no-story” group
The researchers replicated this study with younger children. They also replaced the “healthy” message with other instrumental messages, such as: These carrots will help you learn to read!
And the results were the same: kids don’t want to eat food that is instrumental. They want to eat food that is tasty.
(Don’t worry, they told the kids afterwards that eating carrots wouldn’t help them read!)
What’s the takeaway? You are better off saying nothing than saying “it’s good for you.”
But there’s plenty of research that shows that talking about the sensory properties of food is better than saying nothing.
So make sure you keep talking to your kids about food. Just switch what you talk about from health to taste.
For more on how to talk about food, read Teaching Your Way ouf of a Picky Eating Problem with Sensory Education.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~
Source: Maimaran, M. and A. Fishbach. October 2014. “If It’s Useful and You Know it, Do You Eat? Preschoolers Refrain From Instrumental Food.” Journal of Consumer Research. Forthcoming.