Food Nudges: How to Get Your Kids to Love Healthy Eating


We now know that a woman’s food choices during pregnancy imprint on the developing baby; once they start eating solid foods, infants show a preference for flavors they were exposed to in utero. Moms and dads have full control over what a child eats for the first few years of life, but it fades gradually over the years. A just-out study reports that by the late teen years, parents have zero real-time impact (except, perhaps, budget-wise) on the food choices made by their offspring – but also found that if healthy eating habits were already in place, they tended to stick.

Lately scientists have been studying how to use “nudges” to shape health-promoting behavior, including making healthier food choices. The concept, conceived by University of Chicago behavioral scientist Richard Thaler, is that tiny adjustments to the environment can make it easier (almost automatic, even) for people to make health-promoting choices. It’s a popular theory in public health circles today – and smart parents can put some of the same principles to work in their own kitchen.

The premise is simple. If you do all you can during the early years to help your child learn to love healthy foods – including lots of fresh fruit and vegetables – the odds are excellent he or she will carry those excellent eating habits into adulthood.  Here are some ideas you can try in your home, starting today!

Food Nudges You Can Try at Home

Location, location, location. Set up your kitchen and dining room for healthy eating by putting the nutritious foods in the easiest and most prominent place – with less healthful choices in a harder-to-get to spot. Adjust quantity, too – make lots of the healthiest choices (salad, vegetables) with smaller side dishes for, say, meat and starch. A review of 18 studies on the topic (aimed at food vendors, including cafeterias) found this to be an effective nudge that achieved good results.

Another idea: One study found that keeping serving dishes on the counter, as opposed to on the table, helped discourage second helpings.

Cut healthy foods into small pieces.  Cornell University researchers report that when children were offered a whole apple vs. pieces of candy, they (predictably) chose the sweet. When the apple was sliced into pieces about the same size as the candy, kids still liked the candy – but the percentage who chose the fruit was far higher than when the fruit was presented as a whole.

Why does this work? Apparently, the children didn’t enjoy the feeling of biting into a large, juicy piece of fruit.)

Borrow from the marketing department. Also from Cornell’s nutrition science lab, evidence-based tactics shown to boost healthy food consumption include giving healthy foods a fun name (dinosaur snacks anyone?) … a celebrity endorsement (“Did you know that Batman eats bananas for breakfast every day?”) … and putting a sticker of your child’s character on the plate (Here’s Dora the Explorer on your veggie quesadilla!).

Water, water everywhere! If your children are old enough (three or four) to work the mechanism without making a mess, they’ll enjoy being able to get really cold water easily – and be less likely to want sugary drinks or soda. A California area school system reports that the number of children who drank water rose 20% when water coolers were installed in the school cafeteria.

Be playful with food. Present a plate arranged to look like a sunset or a zoo animal or something else your child will find delightful and fun; researchers have found that kids really do eat more of the healthy foods they are served when they are presented in fun ways. 

Particularly effective? And easy? A happy face!

Other Kid-Friendly Tactics That Work Well Too

Set out healthy snacks without mentioning it. If you know your child is hungry, put out some carrot and celery sticks with a healthy yogurt dip while you work on preparing dinner.

Repeat yourself – and the food you serve. Studies show that children (even infants) may need multiple exposures (five to 10) before they willingly try a new food.

Try grating vegetables (such as zucchini and carrots) into pancakes, quick breads or muffins, or sauces that kids will happily eat without even realizing what they are doing.