There are certain foods that emanate from experiences, like family traditions of grilling veggie kabobs, burgers with grilled onions at annual summer barbeques or the sweet taste of biting into a juicy piece of watermelon after a long day at the pool or beach. These experiences cultivate cravings that leave us wanting more, and ultimately recreate the feelings those memories instilled in us.
When it comes to increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, parents can play on the emotional connection that comes with eating certain fruits and veggies by creating moments that trigger feelings or craving those experiences that will instill habits in children that could last a lifetime. Let’s take a deeper dive from a behavioral science standpoint.
People tend to do things that they enjoy. That’s obvious. What’s less obvious is that the causality works in the other direction too. People will come to enjoy things that they do, even if they don’t enjoy them at first. Both sides of this relationship are important for understanding fruit and vegetable consumption and for informing efforts to increase it.
We Repeat Things We Enjoy
People do things they enjoy, but the nuances of enjoyment have been discussed at least since the ancient Greeks. Fruit and vegetable consumption will be repeated if it produces a variety of positive sensory and emotional experiences.
Taste Is King
Let’s not forget “taste is king”. Everyone in the food industry knows this, and yet consumers often complain about the taste experiences of vegetables, and to a lesser extent, fruits. Because fruits and vegetables are healthy, we sometimes lower our taste expectations and assume that others should too, but for children it’s hard to give up on taste. And children may experience taste differently than adults do.
Consumption increases when food tastes better. Juliana Cohen and her colleagues increased veggie consumption at a school cafeteria by hiring professional chefs to make the lunch veggies taste better. By providing low-income elementary and middle school students with chef-enhanced meals in a repeated, and long-term setting, they were able to almost double the percentage of students that selected and consumed vegetables.
Rather than simply telling people to eat their veggies we should be encouraging them to innovate and experiment to find things that they (and their children) actually like.
Take The Easy Route
Easy things are more likely to become habits because they are more likely to be repeated. This is often overlooked because easy is quite subjective. What is “easy” food preparation for an experienced chef is very different from what is easy for a young parent who themselves didn’t grow up cooking and who has very limited time and resources for food preparation. Things do get easier over time, but only once they are easy will they be repeated in a habit-like manner.
Fruits and vegetables can bring different kinds of emotional enjoyment. Marketers can understand and amplify the enjoyment from different fruit and vegetable types and forms. Sweeter fruits may bring more joy or fun than vegetables, but joy is not the only emotion that can reinforce consumption. For example, psychologist David DeSteno shows that pride can be a great tool for behavior change and perseverance. Pride can reinforce efforts to try new fruits and vegetables. It can also reinforce efforts to simply serve fruits and vegetables to one’s family. Marketers can amplify the pride consumers can feel with vegetable consumption.
Besides the intrinsic rewards of good taste and positive emotion, there are other ways to directly reward fruit and vegetable consumption, and there is research showing that they are effective. Praise for fruit and vegetable consumption has been shown to be effective with young children. Praise may be particularly important when children are trying new fruits and vegetables as it has been shown to increase both consumption and liking among children.
Physical rewards can also be a helpful tool for increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, particularly among children. In an at-home and parent-administered study, 43% of parents reported an increase in their children’s vegetable consumption when the vegetables were presented with stickers of cartoon characters.
Unsurprisingly, monetary rewards can also be effective. When students in before and after school programs were paid $0.25 for consuming fruit and vegetables, the percentage of students who placed at least one serving on their plate, and consumed it, increased from 35% to 57%. The impact of the monetary reward was even larger when students were defaulted into at least having the serving of fruit or vegetables on their plate.
We Enjoy Things We Repeat
When we do behaviors repeatedly, they become easier, and we come to do some of them almost automatically. In fact, psychologist Wendy Wood defines habits as behaviors that are with some automaticity. We often find ourselves starting habitual behaviors without even realizing it.
Easier Through Repetition
People often underestimate just how much better they can get at things with repetition. This is partly because they underestimate how much easier things get with repetition. Even something as simple as preparing instant soup or microwaving a frozen packaged entrée gets easier when you no longer have to read the 8-point font instructions. As things become easier through repetition, they then become even more likely to be repeated, because we are more likely to choose easy food preparation over less easy food preparation.
Tastier Through Repetition
People also underestimate the role of exposure in creating preference. Regularly eating certain foods is what allows national dishes to be so beloved in home countries but considered “acquired tastes” elsewhere – like spicy food in Mexico, and kimchi in South Korea. Controlled exposure is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy, a technique that is very effective in gradually eliminating phobias. Exposure works in increasing the likability and tolerability of foods, including fruits and vegetables. Psychologists call this the mere exposure effect, and it works. Enjoyment can be cultivated, simply through systematic exposure. Some studies have shown that exposure is even more important than palatability in increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. Research suggests that parents grossly underutilize the power of exposure.
To increase fruit and vegetable consumption to the levels recommended by the USDA, millions of Americans will need to develop habits. The consumption experience needs to be enjoyed, or at least it needs to become effortless. Enjoyable and effortless things are more likely to be repeated. And things that get repeated are more likely to become enjoyed and effortless. It’s a vicious cycle. Pro-Tip: find some fruit and vegetable preparations that will be sufficiently enjoyable and effortless even at the outset. Create experiences that are enjoyable and connect the moments with the food. Those are the preparations that are most likely to stick. Have A Plant®.