Trick Your Kids Into Eating Healthy Away From Home
If getting your kids to eat healthy food or choose healthy food options is a regular struggle, maybe you’re going about it the wrong way. Most kids will be happy to learn to eat healthy foods using the techniques I have previously suggested (here, here, here, and here), but some kids really make it a struggle. What if there was a way to get them used to eating healthier foods without fighting? If only there was some way to trick them into eating healthier.
The idea of tricking kids into eating healthy food may seem disingenuous, but it doesn’t have to be. The idea of tricking kids into eating veggies often means hiding veggies in cake, lying about the contents of a dish, or giving kids green juice in an opaque bottle. I’m not opposed to disguising the color of an item or hiding vegetables in a food kids already enjoy, but outright lying is only going to damage your child’s trust. If we want kids to value what we have to say and to really take on board the lessons we are trying to teach them, we have to maintain a high level of trust.
But we can still trick them into eating healthier.
There is a lot of research out there about how different psychological factors impact how much and what we choose to eat. If we have concerns about obesity, we can start by reducing the amount of food our kids eat, and we can do it all without their even knowing. We can do it by using psychological tricks.
In a Restaurant
Americans eat 43% of their food away from home, so it is good to have a few tricks up your sleeve when it comes to eating out.
Where are you eating out? Most restaurants offer a range of healthy and unhealthy foods, so just picking a “healthier” restaurant may not be enough. Consider the atmosphere and mood of the restaurant. Sound and lighting can actually influence what we eat. A restaurant with dim lighting and loud music will encourage you to eat more calories. Also consider that certain types of music will enhance your dining experience. Higher pitched music makes sweet food taste better while deeper notes improve the taste of bitter flavors, so if you’re trying to stick to an enjoyable savory meal and avoid the dessert, find a restaurant that tends to play deep orchestral music, rather than one with a piano in the corner.
Choose the right seat. In a conventional restaurant, select a spot near a window, which increases the likelihood of ordering salad by 80%. Avoid dark corner booths where nobody can see you – instead choose a spot near the front door – they increase your chances of ordering dessert by 73%. And if you can, choose a high-top bar-style table. These tables make you sit up straighter and reduce the risk of you ordering fried food.
When it comes time to order, resist the urge to order healthy food for your kids, or to pressure them to order that healthy salad. People who are pushed to eat healthy food make up for it later by “treating” themselves, and you don’t want your kid dipping into the cookie jar as soon as he/she gets home. (I think a lot of people do this with the gym, too, which is why exercise alone is not enough to lose weight.) Instead, trick your kids into ordering a healthier option by asking them what someone else they admire – say, Batman or Dora the Explorer – would choose to eat. Having to order for someone else encourages kids to think more deeply – and often they will change their order.
Going to a buffet? Sit as far away from the buffet as you can – it encourages you to eat less. Make sure your kids are facing away from the buffet, as well – they won’t be as likely to keep returning for more if they aren’t staring at it. As above, encourage them to use small plates, rather than large ones. Walk them through the buffet and look at each option before taking any food. (Letting them take before looking encourages them to just grab the first things they see and end up eating those things in addition to what they really want. Buffet-goers who look first only take those foods they really want to eat.) Finally, if it’s an Asian buffet, teach your kids to eat with chopsticks. Many Asian restaurants even have some special chopsticks for kids, to help them learn. People who eat with chopsticks rather than forks tend to eat less, probably because chopsticks force you to eat more slowly, and allow the signal of fullness from your stomach to reach your brain before you’ve eaten too much.
School lunches have improved in recent years… and also haven’t. Consider packing a healthy lunch for your kids. People at work who bring bag lunches eat less food than people who eat out, so why not apply this principle to your kids? You also have more control over how healthy the food is that you are sending your kids. Healthy lunch ideas like falafel plates, shish kabobs (and more shish kabobs), and roasted vegetables are filling and nutritious. Homemade snacks like pizza crackers, fruity muffins, and even healthy cookies or mini cakes will be more nutritious than the snacks your kids are likely to eat from the school vending machines – even if they meet new health standards for “smart snacks”.
If you are going to send your child to school with snacks, consider some ways to get your child to snack less. Try transferring snacks to clear bags. If you are sending a snack that would normally fit in a sandwich size bag, send it instead in two or three small snack sized bags. Studies show that snackers who have one big bag are likely to eat the whole thing, whereas snackers with the same amount of food in multiple small bags often only finish one of them. And if you are concerned that your child might waste the healthy fruit you are sending, try cutting it up – one study found that 48% fewer apples were wasted when they were cut up, as opposed to served whole – and that there was a 73% increase in kids eating more than half of their apples.
These tips will help you trick your kids into eating healthier even if they are eating a lot of their meals away from home. When kids are not eating at home, where are they most likely to be eating? Primarily at school and a restaurants (whether with or without parents). If you use these tricks, you can help get your kids to eat less and to eat healthier.
But that’s not all, folks! Stay tuned for a new post soon, on how to trick your kids… at home!
*Many of these statistics have come from the research of Brian Wansink, who is a food psychologist and the director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. You can read more about tips and tricks for psychological food mind games in his new book, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life.