Trick Your Kids Into Eating Healthy At Home
Yesterday, we considered some clever psychological ways to trick our kids (and possibly ourselves) into eating healthier when out of the house. But a lot of the food our kids eat is in fact eaten at home. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to trick our kids into eating less and eating healthier at home, beginning with the way we do our grocery shopping, and continuing on to the way we serve (and even market) our homemade meals. Bon apetite!
In the Store
Going food shopping? We all know it’s a bad idea to go to the grocery store when we’re hungry – it encourages impulse buying, especially of convenience food items. Shopping hungry doesn’t necessarily make us buy more, it makes us buy worse… and that unhealthy food will feed our families for the next week.
Another grocery shopping trick to still those cravings is to chew gum, especially mint flavor. Chewing gum tricks your body into thinking its eating and, as your stomach expectantly waits for its (nonexistent) food delivery, you will be able to do your grocery shopping uninhibited. People who chew gum while shopping buy 7% less junk food.
Begin your shopping trip in the produce section. Spend some time there. Browse the vegetables and, if your kids are with you, talk to them about them. Spend at least 10 minutes there – shoppers who spend this long in the produce section tend to buy more produce than shoppers who rush through… and fresh produce is the healthiest thing you can buy in the entire grocery store, really!
Don’t be afraid to “cheat.” Who cares what people thing when they see you buying bagged salad?! They may think you’re lazy, but do it anyway. We’re all busy mums and bagged, pre-washed salads make it so much easier to serve salad for dinner. Today, you can buy bags of just greens, but more and more grocery stores are offering complete pre-mixed options that come with other veggies already mixed in, or in separate packets in the bag. Heck, I’ve even been know to cheat by buying the bagged Asian salad mix – and dumping it into the pan for a quick stir-fry. If bagged salad means you’re more likely to serve salad for dinner, do it!!!!! As parents, we tend to feel like better parents if we’re serving our kids fresh vegetables, so why not skip some steps and take credit for being a good parent? Serve them bagged salad or steamed frozen veggies and feel proud while you do it!
Smart shoppers looking to save money will often buy the economy size, so save yourself some money and buy all means get the healthy option in the biggest size available! But don’t leave it that way when you get home – subdivide them immediately. Today you can buy special reusable cereal containers that even come in half sizes. I have a whole pantry full of them and I use them for everything, from muesli to rice. Seeing the smaller container when serving will encourage kids to take less.
Get organized! People eat less when their kitchens are clean and organized, possibly because it sucks to make food when you know you’ll be messing up a clean, shiny countertop. The same principle applies to other places where you tend to sit and eat, like at your desk at work. People surrounded by clutter eat 44% more snacks. And no matter how organized or nice it looks to leave certain food items sitting on the counter, put them away – studies show that people who leave containers of cereal (even super healthy cereal) sitting on the counters weigh on average 21 pounds (10 kg) more than people who hide their cereal in the pantry.
What kinds of dishes and utensils are you using? Next time you’re looking to upgrade, don’t go with the fancy plates that match the food you’re serving, unless perhaps you’re serving kale on a dark green plate. People consume 18% more food when they are eating off a plate that matches, so try to choose contrasting colors. And of course there is the age-old trick of using a smaller plate. Most people have heard about this one already – it’s logically satisfying, since you can’t eat as much if you can’t fit as much on your plate. Use a smaller plate, eat 22% less.
As for your cutlery? Go with a bigger fork. It may be tempting to serve kids with small salad forks rather than the big adult forks, but it’s time to give your kids a promotion to adult status, at least in this regard. One study found that people who used larger forks ate on average 3.5 ounces less per meal than people who used smaller forks. That’s because our brains take visual cues to determine how much we have eaten – our stomachs are just too slow to respond. Seeing bigger bites tricks our brains into thinking we’ve consumed more, while seeing smaller bites makes us think we’ve consumed less.
Don’t stop there – think about what kind of glasses you are using to serve drinks. Experiments have mainly focused on alcoholic beverages like wine, but it stands to reason that a kid’s equivalent of wine would probably be some sort of juice, soda, or other soft drink. Soft drinks are a huge portion of calorie consumption by today’s children, so why not trick your kids into drinking less? People drink 92% of what they pour for themselves, so the amount put in the glass really matters. Pouring into tall, thin glasses, rather than short, fat ones, encourages people to pour in less, and thus consume less. Of course, if all your glasses are short fat ones, you can just avoid the whole issue by serving only water at meals, which is what I do.
Keep healthy food around and visible, especially during mealtimes. Placing a bowl of apples in front of the shelf of potato chips may seem like a hopeless and obvious attempt to get your kids to snack on the right foods, but it actually works. Kids who are presented with healthy food staring at them when they make food choices are more likely to eat healthier overall during that meal. Whether it’s guilt, shame, or subconscious influence, I don’t know, but it does work. Of course, you could just remove the potato chips and replace them with apples completely… but how many of us have that much willpower?
How do you serve meals to your family? I’ve never been a fan of “plating” each dish – in my experience, this leads to a lot of food waste and grumbling because not everybody wants precisely one serving of every thing. Growing up, dishes were all placed on the table and each member of the family took as much of each as they wanted. Lately, I’ve been lazy and I often serve meals directly from the stovetop in a “get it yourself” kind of manner. Which of these three methods is best? Well, studies show that serving yourself from the stovetop rather than family-style at the table results in eating 19% less, so if you are aiming to reduce the amount your kids are eating, go ahead – tell them to get it themselves!
Name the food you serve. Yes, I know, most foods already have names, but are they names that mean something to kids? “Green Bean Almondine” may sound elegant to adults (and it has a nice rhyme factor) but it is meaningless to a five-year-old. To encourage kids to choose to eat the healthier foods you are offering, rename them with names that are cool for kids. “X-Ray Vision Carrots,” “Popeye’s Super Strong Spinach” and “Silly String String Beans” will sound fun to kids and studies show they’ll eat more of them.
Finally, if you’re not above misleading (or blatantly lying) to your kids, try telling them their meal is less healthy than it actually is. People who think they are eating fattening, filling, and high calorie foods fill up faster and feel more satisfied, leading them to eat less than if they think they’re eating the diet version. By all means, serve your kids the healthy stuff… just don’t let them know.
If you employ these tips and tricks you will find your kids are eating far less. Maybe not the more than 60% less that each of the “at home” tricks listed above add up to, but then again… maybe! I think it all depends on your starting point. But if your child has a weight problem or you think he/she is eating too much, these tricks are a completely painless way to persuade them to eat less, without ever needing to tell them you want them to eat less. So go ahead, serve that rice on a red plate and that pasta with tomato sauce on a white plate – a small one – from the stovetop. And make sure there’s a big bowl of salad on the table while your kids are eating. Then, just have patience and wait for the results.
Go ahead, shamelessly trick your kids into eating healthier.
*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.