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The Research article “Watching TV Cooking Programs: Effects on Actual Food Intake Among Children” published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour was such a great piece and can definitely teach us something about influencing behaviour.

The study found kids who watched a child-oriented cooking show featuring healthy food were 2.7 times more likely to make a healthy food choice than those who watched a different episode of the same show featuring unhealthy food.

Poor dietary habits during childhood and adolescence have multiple negative effects on several health and wellness indicators, including achievement and maintenance of healthy weights, growth and development patterns, and dental health.

To date the way we tried to influence people to eat healthier (and also children to an extent) was to provide nutritional information alone, health benefits and why it is good to choose certain foods. And as illustrated in this article, that is not very effective in promoting healthy eating behaviors. More recent strategies, which emphasize pleasure from eating or the preparation of food, could be more effective and efficient!

However, it doesn’t have to be a cooking show necessarily. Research has shown that when youth are involved in the preparation of healthy foods, such as vegetables and salads, they are more likely to consume nutrient-rich foods (including fruits and vegetables) and lower intakes of sugary and fatty foods, than when they are not involved in this process themselves. In addition, joint cooking by parents and children has been reported to increase children’s vegetable consumption.

Have you ever watched a movie where the actors eat pasta and suddenly you are in the mood for it? According to cue reactivity theory, food cues trigger food cravings for the primed food and subsequently lead to actual eating behavior. This theory would suggest that priming / ‘prepare’ children with fruit and vegetables in cooking programs would induce the actual consumption of these foods.

This reminds me of that TedTalk of Jamie Oliver a while back when the American children didn’t even know what a fresh tomato looks like. Remember that your children will eat what they know, so show and expose them to new fruits and vegetables daily in order to improve the diversity in their diet.

Unfortunately the other side is also true, as the depiction of unhealthy foods stimulate unhealthy eating behaviours.

Both are consistent with the Social Cognitive Theory, which posits that children learn by observing behaviours of others.

The take-home message:

  • Practice what you preach
    • Remember that in the good and the bad – your children learn by observing you.
  • Involve them in the cooking 
    • Take them along when grocery shopping to expose them and show them what the different foods looks like before cooking.
    • If they worked very hard on a certain dish, they are far too invested not to taste it.
  • Healthy food exposure lead to healthy eating choices.
  • Unhealthy food exposure lead to unhealthy eating choices.