Research likes this drives me crazy because it leads parents down the “garden path.”

It makes the solution to a picky eating problem seem easy, like all you’ve got to do is find the right trick.

Ask your child what Batman—or any superhero of your choosing—would order at a fast food restaurant and you can kiss your kid’s bad eating habits goodbye.

Or at least, that’s what happened in the study.

  • Researchers showed children photos of admirable characters like Batman and asked the kids to say whether they thought this person would order apple “fries” or French fries.
  • The children were then offered a choice of eating apple “fries” or french fries.
  • The children who thought Batman would order the apple “fries” were more likely to order the apple “fries” themselves.

The conclusion: The right prime helps children make the right choice.

I have a lot of respect for these researchers—Brian Wansink and his colleagues at Cornell’s Food & Brand Lab do interesting and important work. Read Mindless Eating and you’ll see what I mean.—but these kinds of trick tips don’t work.

Let me modify that: These kinds of trick tips don’t work unless you already have a child who eats pretty well. If you’re stuck in the mud with a real problem eater don’t expect too much.

For starters, parents rarely implement trick tips the way researchers do.

This is one of the points I always make about getting kids to try new foods.  Researchers ask kids to taste new foods. Parents ask kids to eat new foods.  There’s a big difference.

In this study, the researchers calmly asked the children to reflect on how their favorite superhero might eat and then let the kids choose to eat whatever they wanted, chips fall where they may.

Parents implementing this strategy, however, will inevitably put on the pressure.

  • Don’t you want to eat like Batman?
  • Do you really think Batman would eat french fries? I think Batman would choose apple “fries.”
  • You better eat your apple “fries” if you want to grow up like Batman.

Trick tips makes parents think that if they could only find the “right” trick tip their children would voluntarily eat right.

Then, when the trick tip doesn’t work, these parents think they need to find another, more powerful trick tip.

Or, these parents give up trying because they believe that their child, somehow, has developed a superhuman ability to resist eating right. Teflon Kid. Able to deflect eating solutions in a single stroke.

It’s not the parents who have failed, though, it’s the trick tips.

Trick tips don’t work when they are presented as islands unto themselves—pieces of advice that are disconnected from any kind of cohesive teaching strategy.

Even if trick tips work once or twice, they aren’t a strategy you can use for the long haul.

Don’t you think the Batman question would get a little old?

  • Would Batman choose cereal & fruit or french toast?
  • Would Batman choose pizza or a salad?
  • What do you think Batman would do at this buffet?

Let’s face it, trick tips have a pretty short shelf life.

I think of trick tips as icing on the cake. Icing is good, but it’s nothing without the cake.

The foundation that supports the trick tips (or icing) has three main componenents:

  1. Make sure that your child is learning the lessons you intend. Read Conscious Parenting.
  2. Emphasize a strong (but compassionate) structure that stresses variety.  Read End Picky Eating with The Rotation Rule.
  3. Eliminate as much pressure as you can. Read The Pressure-Cooker Problem.

Yes, it’s a little more complicated than this, and there are a lot of other points I could make (an entire blog’s worth of points actually), but these three components will get you started.

The public discussion about how to teach children to eat right is filled with trick tips.

  • Cook with your kids.
  • Garden with your kids.
  • Go grocery shopping with your kids.

Implement these trick tips if you want, but don’t expect them to solve your problems on their own. Integrate them into a suitable structure, however, and they’ll definitely help get your kids where you’re going—towards a lifetime of healthy eating.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Source: Wansink, B., M. Shimizu, and G. Camps. 2012. “What Would Batman Eat?: Priming Children to Make Healthier Fast Food Choices.” Pediatric Obesity 7(2): 121-23.