TV dinners: Kids eat healthier after watching cooking shows with nutritious food

TILBURG, Netherlands — It’s undeniable that people, adults and adolescents alike, are influenced to a certain degree by the television shows and movies they watch. That being said, children are generally more malleable than adults, and tend to take such programs to heart more frequently than the average adult. Now, a fascinating new study has identified a way for television’s influence over children to be used in a positive fashion. Kids who watched a child-oriented cooking show that featured healthy, nutritious food were 2.7 times more likely to eat healthy food themselves in comparison to children who had watched a cooking program featuring unhealthy food.

The research team, from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, say that food programs emphasizing healthy dietary choices can help kids develop lifelong healthy eating habits.

A total of 125 children between the ages of 10-12, from five different schools in the Netherlands, took part in the study. The kids were asked to watch one of two different clips from a Dutch cooking show intended for children; one clip featured healthy food and the other emphasized more gratuitous foods. After watching one of the clips, each participating student was offered a snack. The children who had been shown the healthy foods clip were much more likely to choose a healthy snack (an apple, cucumber slices) over one of the unhealthier snack options (potato chips, salted mini-pretzels).

“The findings from this study indicate cooking programs can be a promising tool for promoting positive changes in children’s food-related preferences, attitudes, and behaviors,” says lead author Frans Folkvord, PhD, of Tilburg University, in a release.

The children watched the cooking show clips while at school, and the study’s authors believe showing programs that promote nutritious dietary options in classrooms may be a great way to instill healthy eating habits in children all over the world. Previous research had already found that kids are more likely to eat healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, if they are involved in preparing such meals. However, as modern parents rely more and more on pre-cooked or ready-prepared foods, less and less children are spending any significant amount of time in the kitchen.

“Providing nutritional education in school environments instead may have an important positive influence on the knowledge, attitudes, skills, and behaviors of children,” Dr. Folkvord explains.

Of course, no two children are alike, and as such the degree to which these cooking shows influence children’s eating habits varies on a case-by-case basis. For example, researchers noted that kids who usually avoid eating new foods are less likely to try meals they saw featured on television, at least initially. As these children grow older and become more aware of their diets and health, they may recall and try out healthier dietary options they once saw on TV. So, while the benefits may not always be immediately apparent, the study’s authors believe watching healthy eating programs can benefit most children, even if it takes years for the positive effects to take hold.

“Schools represent the most effective and efficient way to reach a large section of an important target population, which includes children as well as school staff and the wider community,” Dr. Folkvord adds. “Positive peer and teacher modeling can encourage students to try new foods for which they exhibited distaste previously.”

“The likelihood of consuming fruits and vegetables among youth and adults is strongly related to knowing how to prepare most fruits and vegetables. Increased cooking skills among children can positively influence their consumption of fruit and vegetables in a manner that will persist into adulthood,” he concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.