Brian Wansink and his colleagues at the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University are known for their targeted research into what nudges us to eat less food. (Wansink is the author of “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think” and the researcher who led the infamous “bottomless soup bowl” experiment.)
In a study published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Wansink and his team examined how many calories children entering the third to sixth grades would consume while watching 45 minutes of television. They found that the children ate less (in calories) when presented with a combined snack of cheese and vegetables than when given potato chips — and not just a little less: the children given the combined snack platter consumed 72 percent fewer calories.
The children were randomly presented with one of four snack alternatives: chips, cheese and vegetables, just cheese and just vegetables. Children given only cheese or only vegetables consumed fewer calories than children given only chips, too. Children given only cheese ate more calories than those given cheese and vegetables; children given only vegetables ate less. But cheese and vegetables combined offer a good balance among calcium, protein, nutrients and fiber that the researchers say could help the act of snacking to be associated with reduced obesity.
There’s not necessarily much new in these results. For years, magazines and health writers have advised us to keep cut-up vegetables and cheese in the fridge for healthier snacking. But the circumstances for children are somewhat different in that they don’t choose what goes in the fridge. In our family, it’s consistently true that if I put out a snack of vegetables and dip, or vegetables and cheese, or if I pop popcorn or slice fruit, that’s what will be eaten. If I tell the children to “Get a snack,” most will reappear with a bag or a box if there is a bag or a box to be had.
So while these results may surprise no one, they do offer a reminder that just like adults, children can be easily nudged in the direction of healthier choices, and those nudges don’t have to take a whole lot of work on our part as parents.
I might try saying, “Go get some carrots and dip,” instead of “Get yourself a snack,” and I’ll stop hesitating over the pricier presliced carrots at the store. And (I can’t believe I’ve never thought of this before) my kitchen is set up so that the snack foods are easily accessible. Maybe I should consider putting them where a little effort would be required. I’m not saying I’ll do this, but imagine yourself saying to a child: “Sure, there are chips if you want them. They’re in the garage. Or there’s cheese and veggies in the fridge.”
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