In some cases, forcing children to consume vegetables can seem about as tedious and difficult as solving a theoretical physics problem. Like talented theoretical physicists, good parents usually don't shy away from this challenge. However, parents may be using misguided strategies that will never precipitate the highly prized vegetable solution.
"Attending to the instrumental benefits can make the food seem less tasty by inducing the inference that if food serves one goal (i.e., the instrumental benefit), it serves another goal (e.g., a taste goal) to a lesser extent than if it did not serve the first goal."
According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, presenting the carrot and other healthy food as some kind of consumptive amulet, capable of transforming a pre-schooler into a stronger person or better reader or more talented counter, is just not the way to go.
"Attending to the instrumental benefits can make the food seem less tasty by inducing the inference that if food serves one goal (i.e., the instrumental benefit), it serves another goal (e.g., a taste goal) to a lesser extent than if it did not serve the first goal," the authors explain in their hypothesis. "This inference, in turn, can lead to reduced consumption."
The scientists proved this basic theorem of children vegetable logic (broccoli that makes me buff cannot also taste good) in several experiments. When food was presented with no explanation or as delicious, kids consumed more of it than when it was endorsed as essential to producing some kind of external beneficial effect.
Our first study finds that children 4.5-5.5 years old consume less and are less likely to choose the consumed crackers when these crackers are presented as instrumental to being healthy (i.e., “makes you strong”), as compared to when no information is presented or when the crackers are presented as tasty. Our second study extends the effect on consumption to children 3-4 years old, showing also that presenting the food as instrumental leads to perceiving the crackers as less tasty compared to control. ... Our third study generalizes the effect to academic nonhealth goals and finds that when food is presented as instrumental to knowing how to read, children 4-5 years old report that they would consume fewer carrots. Our fourth study extends this result to another nonhealth goal and shows that when carrots are presented as instrumental to learning how to count, children 3.5-4.5 years old consume fewer carrots.
Vegetables, it seems, should be handed over in silence. Either that, or marketed as the most delicious snack known to mankind.
Perhaps the reverse psychology works too. You could try telling your children that Oreos, Taco Bell, and fried doughnuts will make them excellent counters and voracious readers. I'd encourage more experimentation on that strategy, though, before making the recommendation formally.