Most of us accept that greens are good and sweets are sinful. It is different entirely to persuade a recalcitrant 5-year-old, however.
Although the experts proclaim meal times shouldn't be battle times, it is hard to preserve a Zen-like calm when faced with a child who has turned down your lovingly cooked vegetable lasagna before she has even let a morsel past her lips.Now a research team at the University of Bangor, Wales, appears to have discovered the holy grail of parenthood. They have found a method that not only encourages children to eat fruit and vegetables, but actually to ask for them, even in preference to sweets.
How did Fergus Lowe, a child psychologist at the University of Bangor, manage to pull off this amazing feat?
"We started from the point that children can learn to like fruit and vegetables, because humans have an evolutionary disposition to like them," Lowe says. "It's predominantly in the West where children have sweet and fatty foods readily available to them that they are less willing to try these foods."
The program was carried out over six years and involved 100 children between the ages of 2 and 7, many selected because of their resistance to eating a wide range of fruit and vegetables.
The program was two-pronged. First, the children were shown a video featuring the "Food Dudes," slightly older children who set out to fight the evil "Junk Food Junta." The Food Dudes were not only glamorous but had great appetites and were shown cheerily munching their way through celery, kiwi fruits and vegetables. Then they exhorted the viewer to eat the same foods. Next, the children were offered associated rewards - such as Food Dude caps and stickers - in return for trying the food and for repeated tastings.
Interestingly, Lowe and his team found that the video by itself had only a marginal effect. However, when combined with the reward, the results took the cake (or rather the carrot) with consumption of fruit and vegetables increasing by 100 percent in children who had been through the program.
"The key is getting them to taste the food," Lowe says. "We found that the more often they tried, say, celery, the better the chance of it remaining a permanent feature of their diet."
He also feels that a major advantage of the program is that it removes the pressure on parents to initiate healthy eating.
"Eating habits can be a major source of confrontation between parents and child, and that's very counter-productive," he says. "But in this program it's not the parents who are seen as the influence, so there's none of that tension."
Certainly, many parents feel confused when it comes to dietary advice. On the one hand, we are exhorted to trim the amount of fats and sweets our children eat; on the other hand, with eating disorders becoming ever more prevalent (and children as young as six developing them) many parents are wary of being too doctrinaire.
Jane Wardle of the Health Behavior Unit at University College, London, admits that she has been to meetings where experts specializing in eating disorders have railed against giving healthy eating advice, believing that it contributes to an obsession with food and thinness. Given these contradictory messages emanating from the experts, it's not surprising that parents feel unsure about exactly what they should be feeding - and telling - their children.
Annabel Karmel, author of the best-selling "The Healthy Baby Meal Planner (Fireside, $15), believes that part of the success of her recipe books is due to the fact that "people lack confidence about what they should be feeding their children."