Getting Kids to Eat Right: Green Ketchup and Other Tricks

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 10, 2000 -- Moms who once battled for Beanie Babies are now grabbing for green ketchup. From all reports, Heinz's somewhat shocking new product is flying off store shelves faster than a Furby at Christmastime. And if it gets kids to eat something they abhor, why not? A new study puts data on a phenomenon that parents have long suspected -- that kids might try a new food if they can dunk it, dip it, or otherwise drown out the flavor.

Fear of unfamiliar foods -- food neophobia -- likely kept Adam and Eve from poisoning themselves when grazing amongst the brambles and berries, says the study's author, Patricia Pliner, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. But in today's supermarket world, it's time we got over it, Pliner tells WebMD. "Humans are omnivores -- we can eat anything and everything."

In fact, in more modern times, the characteristic seasonings used in Chinese, Italian, Korean, and other foods might have developed to combat food fears, says Pliner. "Some theorists believe that cultures around the world have used food flavorings to introduce unfamiliar food staples into the local cuisine," she tells WebMD.

Could the same theory work with kids, the most fearful of all omnivores? In a study appearing in a recent edition of the journal Appetite, Pliner puts the theory to the test.

Pliner's study focused on chips and dips -- specifically, variations on a typical sour cream-onion dip. One variation was tinted pink, and its flavor modified by a bit of ketchup. Another variation was tinted yellow and honey was added. Chocolate syrup was used as a third dip option. The fourth was plain sour cream-onion dip.

She recruited 32 children -- all girls, all 10 to 12 years old -- and put them through a series of taste tests involving five different kinds of chips -- four that were familiar (plain rippled and nonrippled potato chips, plain tortilla chips, and corn chips), and another that they had never tried -- "Snack Jacks," a Chinese fried green-pea chip.

Pliner found that kids liked the "new" dips -- and that after tasting the dips several times, the flavors became familiar to the kids. The children were also more likely to try the unfamiliar Chinese chip with one of the new ketchup- or honey-flavored dips.

"Appropriateness" is important to kids, she also learned. "Kids love chocolate, but they also know you don't eat chips with chocolate."

She challenges parents: "Experiment at home ... develop a flavor that your kid likes ... a dip or a sauce. Of course, dousing your kids' broccoli with ketchup isn't going to work, but you can find something else that does."

In terms of matching texture and major ingredient -- sour cream -- her test was within the culture's general culinary rules, says Pliner. "Ketchup-flavored chips are found on supermarket shelves, and honey (combined with garlic) is a common flavoring used with fried savory foods such as chicken wings and nuggets," she writes.

With all the picante sauce consumed these days, Karen Cullen, DRPH, RD, professor with the Children's Nutritional Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, doesn't doubt that a ketchupy dip was popular in Pliner's study.

"The idea of dips is a good one," she tells WebMD. "The most important thing is low fat. There are fat-free mayos and sour creams that are pretty decent, if you add herbs for extra flavoring. And keep foods simple. Kids like to be able to identify their food. They like single food items, finger foods, crunchy foods, pretty-colored foods. Fresh broccoli sure looks a lot better than broccoli that's been cooked 45 minutes."

She also advises parents to be more relaxed. "Some people think that if your child won't eat broccoli, you shouldn't serve broccoli. That's not right ... [but] a child doesn't have to eat broccoli to be healthy."

Other tips for getting kids to eat right: Don't try bribing, Cullen advises. "It doesn't increase their liking for that food. In fact, it often decreases their liking for the food. You're trying reverse psychology but the kid is reversing it on you. It makes them eat the nasty food so they get desert, but it doesn't make them like the nasty food."

"We need to allow children to self-regulate," Cullen tells WebMD. "If they say they're not hungry, we have to respect that. That's fine. Tell them the next mealtime is at such-and-such a time. That they don't get down from the table and expect another meal in 15 minutes. That's a game. Why force a child to eat when they're not hungry; you can get them into some really bad habits."

"The bottom line is, don't have an argument about food," says Cullen.