Friday, November 06, 2009

Mealtime Psychology

Spending a week with a toddler reminded me of exactly how valuable knowledge of basic psychology can be when it comes to mealtime with a 'picky' two-year old. They are notoriously picky about what they'll eat, but rather than giving in and catering to it, parents can use a few psychological tricks to get kids munching on healthy foods.

One easy one is to give kids a concrete goal and a reward. The reward doesn't have to be sugary treat like a cookie or candy either; it can be whatever the child wants to do more than eat. In psychology, this is known as Premack's principle. For my little charge, it was a newspaper ad insert for Toys-R-Us. With obvious enjoyment, he pages through it and points out toys he likes, naming each one, and can occupy himself for a good long time. So, when he got distracted at mealtime by its presence at the corner of the table, I used that as an opportunity. I eyed his plate and estimated he had about 6 bites left (about two less than he started the meal with) and told him he could look at the flier after he ate 6 bites. He knows numbers so he knows what that meant, roughly. After each bite I told him what a good job he'd done and made a rather embarrassingly big deal of it, exclaimed how many bites he had successfully eaten. I switched to the number of bites left when he had already eaten half of them. This way, he got 'social rewards' right away for doing some of the work and when he got close to being done, he had only a small, easily met problem ahead of him. Once he ate all the bites, I gave him the toy catalog. You have to follow through if you want this incentive-reward strategy to work, and you have to be imaginative with non-sugary rewards. The goal also has to be concrete and reasonably easy to meet.

Another trick is to make eating a game. "Airplaning" food in is an obvious trick, but food can also be animated. He had dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets one day that he didn't want to eat. So I stabbed one with a fork and walked it across the plate and made a game of him biting off the dino's head, then its tail, feet and so on. Toothpicks can be used to make little men out of food too. A grape head, cooked mini carrots for arms and legs, etc. One of his forklift trucks delivered a bite of sandwich.

Both goals and games work well for getting kids to eat food they don't want to eat, but there are a few things that can be done beforehand to prevent even getting to that point.

Arranging small amounts of different kinds of foods on their plate can help kids eat more and also eat a more well-rounded diet. If one type doesn't go over well, they only have to eat a few bites of it. Yes, it takes more time to prepare, but the extra effort I think is worth it and it sets up the habit of a lifetime of eating a well-balanced meal.

Color is a good one to use to advantage too. Colorful foods are also likely to be more nutritious and can be arranged in an artful way: faces are a good choice because they have concrete 'goal' parts that can be eaten. An ear here, an eye there and soon enough the meal will be in the tummy rather than on the plate still, or worse, the floor.

Kids can and should also help make their meal. It teaches them parents and others aren't there simply to wait on them, and it gives kids an opportunity to make decisions and take ownership of their food. If so inclined, kids can also help grow the food by starting a garden or helping maintain one. Every little bit of involvement can help.

When we get to the point of having li'l Baby Field Notes eat with us, I really hope some advance planning will help us avoid having a picky eater. I like the idea of never giving her an option to eat something different from what we're having. I think our little charge always had something different at dinner, and it was always less nutritious, which struck me as weird. If I ever need to babysit again for a stretch of time, for crying out loud, I am going to the freaking grocery store and buying fruits and vegetables! And I will cut them up into little tooth pick stick men and drive them in on a dump truck if that's what it takes.

13 comments:

michellespidermonkey said...

that reminds me of a study that was reported in yahoo news that examined ways to get children to eat vegetables... Apparently, when told that carrots were "super x-ray vision carrots", and so on, kids ate significantly more of the super-power named vegetables than when they were told they were just eating carrots, broccoli, etc...

Field Notes said...

Awesome!
You also reminded me of a study that was done with putting carrots in containers that looked like ones for french fries. Kids ate more that way too.

Science Bear said...

I recently was presented the following information from an ingestive behavior journal club:

A group of young students ranked foods from their favorite to their least favorite. The middle ranking item was used (I think carrots) as a high reward with additional praise in front of the class when a student did something they desired (like answering a question correctly). At the end of the intervention, the students ranked the food associated with praise much higher than their initial "high ranked" food.

The same was done with a food they found very undesirable with the same results!!

Field Notes said...

Neat, SB! That reminds me that classical conditioning can be used to make something with little inherent reward become rewarding by pairing it with something that is.

That would be something, to get kids to view peas as rewarding. It sounds like that's more or less what happened in that ingestive behavior study. Very neat.

Becky said...

I have a really hard time with people who cater to their toddlers, too. Who's the adult in the family, anyway? If they refuse to eat what we're eating, they don't eat. None of this, "do you have macaroni and cheese? Little Sally doesn't like broccoli and potatoes and chicken." Too bad. Little Sally can skip dinner then.

I'm proud of you for being so creative with the food, too. :) You're an awesome mom!

Science Bear said...

On a completely unrelated note, how did you learn to free quilt? If I pass my defense (who am I kidding, even if I don't), I'm planning on getting a new sewing machine!

I'd like a machine that has that feature, but am a little intimidated, since I've never done it before.

Field Notes said...

Free motion quilting....

All it takes is a special kind of presser foot. I have a Viking emerald 118 sewing machine. I love it. Got it on sale at JoAnn'a for $250. Maybe $350; I can't remember exactly. The presser foot was about $25.

I watched a woman who works at a sew and vac shop demo one for me. It looked easy so I bought the foot and figured I'd practice a lot at home and figure it out on my own. It is easy, in a way, but it takes practice to make it perfect, as in the kind of perfectly uniform stitches you see in experienced quilters' work.

If you can live with some imperfection until you've developed a feel for it, I think you'll like it.

You'll pass your defense; I know it!

ExpressYourself said...

Very interesting. <3

Marnina said...

I've actually read studies suggesting the opposite approach would have better long term results - put healthy food in front of them, and that's it. Don't comment, don't cajole. And don't give them junk food if they won't eat the nutritious stuff. :)

Field Notes said...

I agree that's way to go from the beginning, Marnina.

But what if you're facing a situation where a child was allowed junk for years and refuses to eat anything but? Sure, you could put the healthy option down as a 'this is your only choice; starve or eat' or you could also use a variety of techniques (and some form of cajoling) to gradually change the child's eating behavior.

I'd certainly decide which to do based on what works with the least amount of stress involved for everyone.

Marnina said...

Ah, if I'd read to the end of your post I would have seen you'd already advocated that approach from the beginning. Our son is only 8 months old (which is why I didn't get to read it all!), so we'll see how the hands off and eat what we're eating approach works for us. Of course, best laid plans and all, I'm sure there will come a day when I'll be happy to have read your tricks! :) I really enjoy your blog. Marni

Field Notes said...

Thanks Marni! I have an 8 month old too, which is why I hardly ever get to write posts like this naymore... =D

Marnina said...

I know, I used to read your blog from work while we were both pregnant! Now that I'm home with the baby I hardly spend any time on the computer, which is great in most ways, but I miss the interesting things one can find on the web. I missed 8 months of your blog, so I should have some fun reading to catch up on. :)