The good news, for anyone who’s ever fought a losing battle with a tiny human over the green stuff on their plate, is that kids’ distaste for veggies isn’t necessarily something you simply have to wait for them to grow out of: Research has shown that when kids see cartoons going crazy for healthy snacks, they’re more into the idea, too.
The bad news, of course, is that junk-food companies have long since figured this out — for every animated animal with a cool catchphrase that extols the virtues of veggies, there’s another one with a cooler catchphrase hawking an awesome sugary snack. But as writer Chase Purdy recently explained in Quartz, psychologists have also come up with another, even simpler trick to get kids to like healthier food — instead of trying to change their minds, just play to their appetites:
Think about the average dinner plate, with an main course being orbited by side items. Researchers at the University of Minnesota guessed that despite the general motivation to eat, there are no cues as to what food item to tackle first.
“For vegetables, their mere presentation in a multi-food context may do little to motivate intake because people opt instead to consume more of the better-liked items,” the scientists hypothesized. So what might happen if fruits and vegetables are put before hungry children before anything else?
To find out, the study authors designed a pretty straightforward experiment. In the first part, they observed the lunch line in an elementary-school cafeteria, looking at how many students took cups of carrots when they were displayed as one of many food options. When the researchers came back to the same school a few months later for the second part of the experiment, they set up the lunchroom so that carrots were waiting on every table, there for the taking as soon as the kids came inside, before they could line up for the rest of their food — and lo and behold, the kids ate more than four times as many carrots as they had in the first round. A separate experiment at a different school, this time with broccoli, yielded similar results. Getting kids to eat healthy, in other words, seems to require the same strategy as convincing yourself to do the same: When you’re hungry, it’s easiest to eat whatever’s right in front of you — and once you understand that, you adjust accordingly.