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Applying Science to real world issues

24th November 2013

I came late to academia – after the birth of my two children.  A psychology degree was followed by a Masters, and a PhD after that.  More by accident than design, I ended up researching children’s eating habits – sadly, this was too late to be of any benefit to my own children, who were both fairly fussy eaters when they were little.  Like many mothers, I would often cave in and serve up the chicken nuggets and potato waffles that I knew would be eaten, rather than battle it out over lean grilled chicken and broccoli which would not. No one wants a row at mealtimes and anyway, I clearly remembered my own experiences with Mrs Munn, the dinner lady who insisted that I ate up all of the cabbage on my plate which made me gag. All she achieved was to make me hate cabbage forever and I was determined that I wasn’t going let that happen to my own children. Thankfully, they have both grown up to be keen cooks and enthusiastic, adventurous and healthy eaters, but if I’d known then what I know now, that would have been the case a great deal earlier.

The fact is that it is perfectly normal and incredibly common for children around the age to 2 to start rejecting foods that they previously enjoyed, and the foods most often rejected are, of course, vegetables.  The extent to which children are fussy and how much they like certain foods is in no small part down to genes. Picky mothers and fathers are likely to produce picky children, and if parents themselves don’t like vegetables, it’s unlikely that their children will. However, genes are not destiny, as they say, and eating habits can be modified. Since the early 1980’s behavioural scientists have been developing and testing strategies to change children’s food preferences. Time and time again, research has shown that 10 to 15 daily tastings of small amounts of a food will result in increased liking and intake – this is known as the ‘exposure’ effect. What is clear is that the message has never been successfully conveyed to parents who typically give up offering foods if they have been rejected more than 3 or 4 times. Another problem that I became increasingly aware of was that in every study using exposure techniques, there were always a small number of children who flatly refuse to taste anything. One possible answer was bribery, but despite their widespread use in educational and domestic settings, rewards have a bad name in the psychological literature for undermining intrinsic liking.

Nevertheless, the Medical Research Council saw fit to fund the Health behaviour Research Centre at UCL to investigate ways of using rewards to improve children’s eating habits. Three successful large- scale trials later and in conjunction with the charity Weight Concern, we have produced a pack called Tiny Tastes, designed to help parents and carers to introduce vegetables in a non-stressful and enjoyable way. Key determinants of the success of Tiny Tastes appear to be the very small amounts that children are required to taste, the colourful sticker rewards and the fact that the tastings take place outside of mealtimes. See what one mum (and journalist) said about Tiny Tastes in the Sunday Telegraph Stella magazine:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/10399200/Stick-it-to-them-the-way-to-deal-with-fussy-eaters.html

Copies of Tiny Tastes and more information available from:

http://weightconcern.org.uk/tinytastes

 

Lucy Cooke, PhD, Research Psychologist, University College London