It is often said that “children eat what they like,” but the results of a new study by Penn State nutritionists and sensory scientists suggest that when it comes to meals, it is more accurate and more relevant to say, “children do not eat what they dislike.”
There is an important difference, according to lead researcher Kathleen Keller, associate professor in the departments of Nutritional Sciences and Food Science, who conducted an experiment involving 61 children ages 4-6 years to assess the relationship between their liking of foods in a meal and subsequent intake. The research revealed that when presented with a meal, disliking is a stronger predictor of what youngsters eat than liking.
“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,” she said. “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.”
Children participated in two identical laboratory sessions in the study conducted in Keller’s Children’s Eating Behavior Laboratory in the College of Health and Human Development, where seven foods—chicken nuggets, ketchup, potato chips, grapes, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, and cookies—were included on a tray. Also included were two beverages, fruit punch, and milk.
Before eating the meals, children were asked to rate their liking of each food on the following five-point scale—Super Bad, Bad, Maybe Good-Maybe Bad, Good, and Super Good. After the children had eaten as much of the meal as they wanted, the researchers weighed what they ate and compared the results with what the kids said they liked and disliked. The correlations were striking.
In findings recently published in the journal Appetite, the researchers reported that the relationship between liking and intake was not strong for most of the foods.
However, there was a strong correlation between consumption—or nonconsumption in this case—and the foods the children said they didn’t like. At a multi-component meal, rather than eating what they like, these data are more consistent with the notion that children do not eat what they dislike, the researchers concluded.