by Marion Nestle
Jan 13 2012

Another pet peeve: can’t kids just eat?

Yes, I know getting kids to eat their veggies can be challenging. 

Cornell researchers wondered this is because kids like different ways of presenting foods than adults.  They tested this idea in a study just published in Acta Pædiatrica.   

Contrary to the default assumption that parents and children share preferences for the ways in which food is presented on plates, we find that children have notably different preferences than adults. 

Most remarkably, we show that children tended to prefer seven different items and six different colours on their ideal plates, while adults tended to prefer three different colours and three different items….Given that adults often prepare plates of food for children to eat, these findings suggest new windows for encouraging diverse childhood nutrition.

I suppose this is the rationale behind the latest approach to getting kids to eat better diets: My Fruity Faces.  These are edible stickers that kids can stick on whatever fruits, vegetables and, presumably, any other food that happens to be handy.


The stickers are less interactive and creative than the old Mr. Potato Head toy, but kids can eat them.

And they ought to like eating them: Sugar is the first ingredient. 

Sugar is followed by Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose(Modified Cellulose), Water, Natural flavor, Modified corn starch, Glycerin, Polyglycerol esters of fatty acids, Citric acid, Red beet concentrate, Turmeric, Red cabbage extract, Caramel color, Sodium Bicarbonate.


Will something like this reallyget kids to eat more fruits and vegetables?  Cornell researchers: get to work.

  • I don’t have kids, but I have to wonder if it’s really so impossible to get them to eat well. I liked vegetables as a kid, and I’m sure a lot of kids now like a lot of vegetables. A little butter and salt makes them a treat. Or does every single kid really hate every vegetable that much?

  • The biggest challenge to fruits and veggies at our house is “care parcels” from their grandma. As soon as I get the opportunity, I toss out peeps and cheese-its so they don’t compete with real fruits, veggies and cereals. When the kids help prepare a meal thy are ready to try it. Our three year old woke me up this morning, asking if we could make spinach pizza.

  • Alexia

    I read the abstract to that study & found it interesting that they only showed the kids photos of plates of food, not actual plates of food. Thus, there’s no way to really know if the kids would actually eat more &/or more varieties of food based on this study. All it really shows is that kids find plates of food with more types of food on them more visually interesting. I suppose your kid is probably more likely to eat stuff if she’s interested in what’s on her plate but it doesn’t sound like that conclusion can be drawn directly from this research.

  • Heidi

    My daughter was a fantastic eater until about the age of 2 1/2. (when she started daycare) She used to munch on raw asparagus and eat red peppers like they were apples. Even though I packed her lunch for school, she started asking for foods she obviously saw other kids eat. (For example, she would ask me to take the crust off of bread, ask for fruit snacks, ect) A couple of months ago we bought the book, “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr Seuss. To my surprise, she totally understood the concept. Since then, she is enthusiastic about trying new foods again. (sometimes with reminding how Sam I Am liked green eggs and ham after he tried them). She may not eat what she tries, but at least she is trying the fruit/veg, which is important. She FINALLY just tried raw peppers again and proclaimed, “Mom, I like peppers! Yum!” Books can be an alternative way to teach children about healthy eating.. instead of edible sugar stickers.

  • Jennifer Feeney

    My kids used to be typical American kids. Refusing veggies (except for corn and green beans), and only eating bananas. They wanted mac-n-cheese, potatoes, and chicken nuggets all the time. But then, I was feeding them according to food marketing standards. When I through out the processed foods, brought the kids into the kitchen to cook, and started growing some veggies, it all changed. My oldest, who was the worst of the bunch, ate two bowls of curried lentil coconut soup with a big bunch of kale in it just yesterday. My family doens’t believe it. Effort and actually including kids in the process really works. We don’t count the number of colors (that really made me laugh!)

  • It’s really difficult to counteract the onslaught of junk food marketing; one way parents do it is to use the same techniques for health food.

    I agree, I’m not at all sure it’s a good idea. I’d really prefer having more control over the food messages my child sees.

    In the meantime, I do try to “market” healthier food: I do things like making homemade broccoli-cheddar soup, float two halves of a hardboiled egg dotted with two capers in it, and call it “Swamp Monster Stew.” It works. Sigh.

  • Ann Heard

    Don’t you think if fruits and vegetables actually tasted like the fruits & vegetables that I remember as a kid, then kids would eat them. Real fresh, non GMO, non imported food tastes good. Kids that ate green beans and tomatoes fresh off the plant in my garden this summer, munched them up quickly. Taste that tomato in the grocery store. I don’t like it either.

  • My “kid” at the end of 1978, I was an inmigrant then, 20 years before I graduated in nutrition…all I knew was to cook and my mother’s wisdom words: “eat your vegetables”. When my son was in school was able to diferenciate cilantro from parsley…while all his classmates wonder “what is that?” in our table…By the way it has been sooooo inexpensive to eat that way…Our veggies today come from our small garden, our local farmers markets, or Union Square when we venture in NY…and when we travel overseas back in Latin America, Europe or Asia, we continue eating from local farmers, or eco-fairs….makes vacations so much “cheaper”…..

  • Hmm zany study idea: If fruit face smiles vs frowns are kids more likely to associate eating fruit with positive emotions (after all you never see Spongebob Squarepants frowning when he is on FOP)?

    Will keeping thinking about it… but for now we do know that simple things like presenting fruit in an attractive way, using descriptive names, and even just cutting it up are all great low-cost ways to encourage kids to eat more fruits.

    Here’s a short video that explains that in a more exciting way:

  • renita

    I have a 7-year-old brother-in-law (yep) and he is a pretty picky eater — he eats a lot of starch, pb&j, yogurt, apples (peeled), carrot sticks (with ranch) and assorted berries. Not too many other veggies I know of.

    Here’s the thing, though: his parents (my in-laws) are also picky eaters. I don’t think they try to get him to eat much that’s adventurous, nor do I think they expect him to eat much beyond his comfort zone. Considering that my husband is also fairly picky about veggies, I doubt the kiddo will ever get pushed much… unless it’s by a future significant other.

  • Margeretrc

    Because I had many battles over food when I was growing up, I vowed I would not have similar battles with my kids. They were allowed to eat–or not eat–whatever was offered for dinner and, if I served them, not required to clear their plate. The only rule we had was taste everything or no dessert. (In those days we had dessert.) Even as kids my children were not picky eaters and loved most–if not all–vegetables and other food groups. They begged for broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and other things at which most kids turn their noses. And they have grown up to be good cooks who like to eat a huge variety of foods and neither one has a weight problem. I think the only thing my daughter does not care for is mushrooms, though as a kid she loved them…If left alone, kids will choose to eat a variety of foods to supply them with the nutrients they need. Just make sure the foods on offer are ones they should be eating, not sugary junk!

    This is a fascinating piece of research done by Clara Davis in the late 30’s. (The question is what is the relevance in the face of onlaught of the current kids food environment)

    “Composed in the direct and muscular literary style characteristic of her writing, the CMA speech, and a subsequent paper published in CMAJ,1 laid out to the world medical community what happens when you, as she would characterize her efforts elsewhere, let “children do for themselves.”

    Doing for themselves specifically meant permitting newly weaned infants to choose how much or how little to eat of 33 available foodstuffs. As she emphasized to her Quebec audience, no adult was allowed even to hint to the children what might be a proper choice or portion amount. “The nurses’ orders were to sit quietly by, spoon in hand, and make no motion,” she said.

    What was breathtaking about the experiment was not simply this conceit (so innocent were these young subjects of what constituted food that initially some hungry infants would chew on “a clean spoon, dishes, the edge of the tray, or a piece of paper on it”), but its duration and its execution.

    . . . Children quite often responded to doctor-ordered proper diets by shutting down and refusing to eat anything. One physician of the period2 (p. 6) estimated that 50%– 90% of visits to pediatricians’ offices involved mothers who were frantic about their children’s refusals to eat — a condition then called anorexia.

    On their part, at least some doctors responded to the children’s hunger strikes by declaring war on children’s aberrant appetites and eating patterns. For instance, Alan Brown, co-creator of Pablum and head of pediatrics at Toronto’s The Hospital for Sick Children (popularly known as Sick Kids), advised mothers in the 1926 edition of his best-selling book on child-rearing, The Normal Child: Its Care and Feeding (p. ix),3 to put children on what was literally a starvation diet until they submitted to eat doctor-sanctioned meals.

    Accordingly, Davis devised the experiment to let children do for themselves because she suspected that children’s bodies instinctively “knew best” what the individual child should eat. Her intellectual model, a view that would later be called “the wisdom of the body,” likened a child’s instinctive appetite to the way various autonomic body systems effortlessly adjust themselves to compensate for external challenges — think of sweating on a hot day, and breathing faster when you start to run.

    Initially, it seemed that this conceit didn’t apply to Davis’s test children and their food preferences. None of the eat-what-and-how-much-of-what-you-want infants had the same diet on any given day, week or month. “Every diet differed from every other diet, 15 different patterns of taste being presented, and not one diet was the predominantly cereal-and-milk diet, with smaller supplements of fruit, eggs and meat, that is commonly thought proper for this age,” she told her Montréal audience.

    Yet, she and others later saw that the infants’ fanatical heterodoxy turned into what appeared to be 15 uniformly well-nourished, healthy children.

    How could eating drastically different diets achieve uniform health and nutritional balance? Body wisdom was the only likely explanation Davis concluded. “Such successful juggling and balancing of the more than 30 nutritional essentials that exist in mixed and different proportions in the foods from which they must be derived suggests at once the existence of some innate, automatic mechanism for its accomplishment.”

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  • Joe

    Too often statements are made that make it seem as though kids don’t eat vegetables. It is easy to generalize this issue but such misses the truth too often. Many children do eat vegetables as witnessed by fact that there are very few malnourished children in our country.

    For those children who do not routinely eat vegetables I always wonder if the adults in the home eat them? Children tend to follow strong role models.

    Finally is a study (likely government funded) needed to show that children and adults have different food preferences? That was common sense last I checked.

  • What will really help children eat their vegetables is parents who lead by example. If you screw your nose up at them, or have a plate noticeably lacking in them – why should they suddenly think they are yummy?

    Also important – parents willing to be just that instead of best buds. My daughter ate the dinner in front of her or she didn’t eat. I’m horrified by how my clients let their children dictate what the family will eat (which means French fries, pasta, and more French fries).

    No, I find teaching adulteration of our food through silly faces stuck onto fruits and vegetables a horrifying step backwards. Get real and eat real food! Here is six colors for you – beets, carrots, broccoli, eggplant, parsnip and salmon.

  • Margeretrc

    @Joe, I suspect there are far more malnourished children in this country than you would like to think–because for so many the diet revolves around sugary sodas, fruit juices, and snacks, French fries, cereal, bread and other such starchy foods which doesn’t leave much room for vegetables and other nourishing foods. Yes, I know, technically French fries are a vegetable, but… Just because kids aren’t thin doesn’t mean they’re not malnourished. Basically every obese kid you see out there, and their numbers are growing, is malnourished–just not in the same way that a kid from a third world country most likely is.
    @Julie, well said.

  • CS

    Green Eggs and Ham comes up often at our house too! My almost 3 yr old, when presented with something he doesn’t recognize, will “taste it on his tongue” (we don’t force him to eat things). 9 times out of 10, he says “I DO like it, just like Sam I am”

  • Joe

    While I recognize and appreciate your passion for the issue conjecture and opinion cannot pass for science.

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  • Hello:

    My name is Brian Jones and I am one of the founders of My Fruity Faces. Thank you all for the feedback on the My Fruity Faces product. We are listening to your discussions around the product because we know we can always get better. My partners and I are parents who strive to bring kids and nutrient-rich fresh produce together with the goal of improving their eating habits.

    My partner’s son actually inspired the idea of My Fruity Faces by placing regular monster stickers you’d buy in any party store all over an apple one day and then asking his dad if he could eat the apple. My partner thought it was a cool concept and the idea for My Fruity Faces was born.

    We have shared My Fruity Faces edible stickers with several families, in classrooms, and in party situations. Overwhelmingly, children love them. Various moms report that their children now eat cucumbers without ranch dressing, squash, and more apples, bananas and citrus fruits than ever before. One mom even reported that she used the stickers on salmon cakes that her kids wouldn’t touch – they ate them with the stickers.

    An important fact about My Fruity Faces is the nutrition panel. My Fruity Faces are a zero calorie product – in fact the panel is zeros from top to bottom. By itself, it is not good or bad for children. The product is meant to be a catalyst to encourage children to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables.

    We encourage healthy eating habits by offering a unique approach that parents can incorporate into the other things they do to help their children eat better – nothing more.

    We would like you to do your own testing of My Fruity Faces (sort of the My Fruity Faces Challenge). We will give samples to the first 20 people who email me at if you promise to share them with children aged 2-9 and to provide feedback right here on this site. Sound fair?

  • Margeretrc

    @Joe. I never said it did. Just pointing out that there are more than one ways of being malnourished.

  • Ralph

    Sugar is followed by Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose(Modified Cellulose), Water, Natural flavor, Modified corn starch, Glycerin, Polyglycerol esters of fatty acids, Citric acid, Red beet concentrate, Turmeric, Red cabbage extract, Caramel color, Sodium Bicarbonate.

    Come on why give them this garbage.Makes no sense to me.

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  • Abigail

    My seven kids like vegetables and fruits. I think that kids who eat a lot of junk food have their appetites for whole foods spoiled–not just because they’re already full, but because if you’re used to the condensed sweetness of candy, you might not appreciate the more subtle sweetness of an apple; and if you’re used to the extreme crispness of a dorito, you might not appreciate the crispness of a raw pepper. So, simply don’t buy junk food. If it’s not in the house or in their school lunches, they won’t eat much of it.

    Second (this is a trick), I’ve accidentally discovered that kids will eat really adventurous things by candle-light (we eat by candle-light during Advent). Once they realize they enjoyed a dish, they’re willing to eat it in the light of day, too.

  • I agree with some other commenters that said lead by example. My 2 1/2 year old will eat my oatmeal, salad, and veggie sandwich packed with spinach and sprouts any day of the week (even if she doesn’t eat her “own” salad or food on her plate.) Just have a variety of healthy foods available and keep trying to offer them the healthy (and delicious) stuff and they should come around…eventually.

    Another tip: we use those lunch plates with 4 or 5 seperate places for different food- kind of like a lunch tray at a cafeteria. My daughter loves having her raisins, applesauce, spaghetti, salad, etc. And with such a variety of healthy food in front of her, even if she doesn’t eat it all she is still getting lots of good nutrients. These are similar to bento boxes in Japan.

  • eva @VegucatingMyKids

    how do i place these stickers on steamed, roasted, or sauteed veggies?…

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  • Michelle

    Really, you can’t go wrong with offering healthy foods, eating healthy foods in front of your kids, and making it a rule that you must try a taste of everything on your plate (with the exception of foood allergies, obviously).

    Yes, my kids have screwed up their noses and complained about more meals than I care to remember. Yes, it is demoralizing to cook for them sometimes. But their pallattes adjust, and eventually they are willingly reaching for the same foods that they declared disgusting the first few times they tried them. Roasted kale, anyone?

  • Michelle

    As for the stickers, I think they probably have their place. On their own, obviously, they are unlikely to change a child’s eating habits, but they do look fun. I was a healthy eater as a child, but I still think I would have loved to get stickers like that in my lunchbox, and could see sending them with my child (who loves fruit, but for some reason never seems to eat the apple in his lunch).

    Yes, I get that the ingredients of the stickers aren’t great, but I can’t imagine they are getting very much of any of those ingredients in the tiny little stickers. My child probably ingests as many harmful chemicals by chewing on his plastic toys. I buy mostly organic, yet I could still see getting these on occasion.

  • Actually, research also shows that kids given the exact same baggie of, say, carrot sticks with a sticker of a cartoon character and one without, prefer the one with the cartoon, and say they taste better. It’s not just about GETTING them to eat the foods either. You want them to CHOOSE to eat the foods and WANT to eat the foods.

    I ate the veggies and salads my dad forced on us each night. And for 20 years after that, I lived on Lucky Charms and M&Ms. Because I COULD. I was able to make my own choices. So I wholeheartedly advocate anything that helps kids make healthy CHOICES. Not just by only being offered healthy choices and having to pick one by default, or being threatened, bribed, or cajoled into it.