Three tips for parents to encourage healthier eating

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 May, 2015, 6:19am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 May, 2015, 8:20pm

Parents, are you trying to get your children to eat healthier food? Try this at home: first, make healthy food more convenient by putting pre-cut vegetables on the middle shelf of the fridge and keeping junk food out of sight.

Second, make it more attractive by offering tempting salad dressings with cool names.

Third, make it more normal by setting a salad bowl on the dinner table every day.

These steps can encourage a healthier diet, suggests Professor Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab in New York state.

In new research by the Lab published in Psychology and Marketing, Wansink and his team analysed 112 studies that collected information about healthy eating behaviour. They found that most healthy eaters did so because a restaurant, grocery store, school cafeteria, or spouse made foods such as fruits and vegetables visible, easy to reach, enticingly displayed, and appear like an obvious choice.

"A healthy diet can be as easy as making the healthiest choice the most convenient, attractive and normal one," says Wansink, author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life.

For example, when restaurants give the shrimp salad appetiser an enticing name, highlight it on the menu and have the waitress point it out as a special, it becomes more convenient, attractive and normal to order than the deep-fried onion rings on the back of the menu, say the researchers.

In previous studies by Wansink, schools were able to increase white milk consumption by 30 to 60 per cent (as opposed to chocolate milk) by putting white milk in front of the cooler, selling it in a shapely bottle or giving it more cooler space instead of relegating it to a corner.

But against processed and packaged food at the supermarket, how can healthier food choices be made?

Three new studies from the Cornell lab by Wansink and colleague Aner Tal found that people who ate an apple sample before shopping bought 25 per cent more fruits and vegetables than those who did not eat a sample.

What this teaches us, is that having a small healthy snack before shopping can put us in a healthier mindset and steer us towards making better food choices
Aner Tal, Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab

In the first study, 120 shoppers were randomly given either an apple or cookie sample, or no sample, at the start of their shopping trip. Those who were given the apple sample bought 28 per cent more fruits and vegetables than those given a cookie sample and 25 per cent more fruits and vegetables than those given no sample.

"What this teaches us," Tal explains, "is that having a small healthy snack before shopping can put us in a healthier mindset and steer us towards making better food choices."

In the second study, 56 participants were given a cookie or apple sample and then asked to imagine they were grocery shopping, choosing between 20 product pairs of one low-calorie and one high-calorie item.

As in the previous study, those who ate the apple tended to opt for low-calorie items.

In the third study, 59 participants were divided into three groups. Group one was given chocolate milk labelled "healthy, wholesome chocolate milk", group two was given the same milk but labelled, "rich, indulgent chocolate milk," and the final group did not receive any milk.

Participants who were given the milk labelled healthy and wholesome selected more low-calorie foods in a virtual grocery store. This finding indicates that even the perceived healthiness of a product can be influential.