In her studies, she found children like fat and sugar and somewhat surprisingly, fruit is at the top of the list of food choices, followed by starches, meat and eggs, dairy and vegetables. She said it’s not surprising kids like candy and cake over peas and carrots.
“Children do not naturally like healthy foods. They need to learn to like those healthy foods,” Fisher said. “They also like what they know.”
Repeat exposure creates a food familiarity that also drives food choices for children, which explains why many children repeatedly choose chicken nuggets and cheese, as she found in a study of preschoolers. Taste preferences are evident shortly after birth, with children preferring sweet and salty tastes first and rejecting bitter and sour tastes.
Fisher recommends diversifying diets in pregnant and nursing women since diets are determined “long before they taste their first bite of solid food.”
Parental behavior also drives healthy food choices that are available, accessible and familiar.
“When children are watching adults, they more quickly try new foods and accept new foods particularly when the adult is enthusiastic,” Fisher said. “What doesn’t work is pressuring kids to eat. And if you bribe kids with dessert, they will end up disliking the vegetables even more.”
Parents who also get their kids involved in food preparation and tasting, she said, provide a positive experience to promote acceptance of healthy foods.
While we wait for our nation’s collective common sense to gain the upper hand and reject the nutritional wasteland of super salty and super sweet food and gravitate toward healthful fruits and vegetables, I wonder if there are stopgap measures available. For example, we could parlay the Starburst effect into the fresh produce department.
Like apples immersed in grape flavoring, why not brand veggies like carrots with the Starburst label and infuse with them cherry or strawberry flavor? If the end (increased consumption of fresh produce by kids) justifies the means (wacky food science), then it may be time to turn the curse of Starburst into a blessing.