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Children's diets may be more influenced by what they dislike than what they like

Experts say kids’ food and drink dislikes may be more relevant to their overall eating patterns

Child drinking smoothie with mom
Photo (c) d3sign - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Penn State explored the factors that go into kids’ eating habits. 

According to their findings, knowing what foods kids don’t like may be more important than knowing what foods they do like. Their work showed that when kids are given a meal, their dislikes are more likely to motivate what they eat than the things they like. 

“For 50 plus years, we’ve known liking and intake are positively correlated, but this often leads to the mistaken assumption that if it tastes better, you will eat more,” said researcher John Hayes. “Reality is a bit more nuanced. In adults, we know that if you really like a food, you may or may not eat it. But if you don’t like it, you’ll rarely or never eat it. These new data show the same pattern is true in young kids.” 

Understanding kids’ food habits

The researchers had 61 kids between the ages of four and six participate in an experiment that tested their eating habits. The children were given trays with seven foods and two drinks – broccoli, cherry tomatoes, chicken nuggets, ketchup, cookies, grapes, chips, milk, and fruit punch. The kids ranked each item on a scale from super bad to super good, and then they consumed as much of the foods and drinks as they wanted. 

The researchers learned that the foods the kids disliked proved to be a stronger indicator of what they ate than the foods they ranked as their favorites. 

“In other words, rather than high-liking driving greater intake, our study data indicate that lower-liking led children to avoid some foods and leave them on the plate,” said researcher Kathleen Keller. “Kids have a limited amount of room in their bellies, so when they are handed a tray, they gravitate toward their favorite thing and typically eat that first, and then make choices about whether to eat other foods.” 

Others’ opinions can influence kids 

While kids have certain foods that they naturally are more inclined to eat, the researchers also explained that they may be swayed by those around them. They believe kids’ perceptions of different foods and drinks, mainly what they hear from their family members and friends, can also influence their opinions. 

“They pick up on what is said around the table about what foods are good, and while that may not actually correspond to kids eating them, they are taking it all in, and that’s affecting their perceptions of foods,” Keller said.

“Milk is a good example of that – for some families, there may be a health halo effect around milk. Kids learn from an early age that drinking milk will give them a strong body, so they may drink milk even if it’s not their favorite beverage.” 

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