As far back as I can remember, I always loved eating fruits and vegetables.
My parents ate lots of fruits and vegetables, as did my siblings, and I can’t remember any fuss around eating our veggies growing up. I also appreciated that my parents didn’t give us the guilt trip I heard in many of my friends’ homes: “Think of all the starving children in Bangladesh”.
But I didn’t like eggs, and my parents really wanted me to eat them. Being a vegetarian child, they were concerned about my protein intake and, with the best of intentions, they pushed the omelette issue regularly. There were standoffs, power struggles, negotiations and rewards, and my parents won most of the time--I did eat some eggs.
Until I was thirteen.
And to this day, I cannot get myself to eat an egg that hasn’t lost its identity in a prepared dish. I’m sure that what I perceived as negative experiences with eggs (centered around parental dictates) drove me from lack of enthusiasm to a deep dislike that is childish in its irrationality.
Is this just my personal experience? Apparently not.
A study in the scientific journal Appetite looked at the prevalence of forced consumption and its role in subsequent food rejection, as remembered by 407 college students.
Forced consumption might seem like a form of cruel and unusual torture, but in this study coercion consists most commonly of minor punishments such as “you cannot have dessert until you finish your vegetable” or “you cannot leave the table until you finish” -- guilt inducing efforts such as “your father worked really hard to make this meal” or “I spent good money on this meal”. And there is of course the always-popular promise of rewards, such as dessert or other bribes.
Almost seventy percent of the students in the study experienced at least one forced consumption episode. (A similar prevalence was reported in a study of five-year-old girls).
Most (71%) of the “forcers” were parents, and the common forcers’ justifications were healthy food, variety in diet and avoidance of wastefulness.
The most common foods forced on the study group were vegetables (almost 50%), red meat (16%), and seafood (7.5%).
The emotional response of the child at the time of the episode was--no surprise--negative 95% of the time and included anger, fear, disgust, confusion and even humiliation.
Now we get to the most interesting question: do children that had been pushed to eat a food come to accept it later? The answer from this study is a resounding no!
The students reporting episodes of coerced feeding were asked if they would willingly eat the target food today, and 72 percent would not.
The forced consumption population in this study even rated themselves as significantly pickier than the control population.
Well-meaning parents try through coercion to increase the consumption of foods they think are important to their child’s health. Yet, because of the interpersonal conflict and negative experience, they often get the opposite result. A child may never give a certain food a chance if it has negative memories attached to it.
It almost seems like parents should push foods that they want to make sure their child never eats (“You cannot leave the table until you finish those French fries!”).
We all want what’s best for our kids, and we think that if we try a little harder to steer them in the direction of healthy eating it’s going to improve their eating habits. But it doesn’t work that way; pressuring children to eat a particular food actually reduces their liking and intake of that food.
Does offering a reward increase consumption? Telling a child that if they eat their vegetables they’ll get ice cream devalues the means (vegetable) relative to the reward (ice cream) in the kids’ mind, while what we want them to think is the opposite.
Here are a few strategies that do work:
Parental modeling: children imitate us, and what we eat. If you eat a healthy diet, it’s good for you and your child.Buying and making the best quality, tastiest food you can afford and eating it in the most pleasurable and calm atmosphere helps make eating healthy a good experience kids will want to repeat.
Making fresh healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables available and accessible
Increasing children’s familiarity with healthy foods can increase acceptance and intake, so involve your kids in food-related activities, such as trips to the farmers’ market, cooking, gardening and menu selection.
And if a child refuses to eat a new food, please don’t force them. Instead, try serving it again another time.
I wish you luck with what can be a frustrating challenge at times.