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I’m always fascinated by the way kids think. Why they do the things that they do. I love how loyal they are. I also love how susceptible they are to suggestion. I can vividly remember getting Big Girl to eat her dinner by telling her that so-and-so, a friend from nursery school, LOVED what we were serving that night. Little Girl will let me comb her hair when I remind her that her favorite friend’s mom can braid her hair without a fight. It’s not just girls, either. My now 21-year-old nephew used to do anything that his mom told him the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did, whether it was taking a bath or going to sleep early. Kids, it seems, identify with people and characters that they love and look up to.

Researchers at Cornell University Food and Brand Lab have proof of this fact. Study authors Dr. Brian Wansink, Dr. David R. Just, and Dr. Collin R. Payne were able to prove that the simple act of putting a sticker on a healthy food was enough to get kids to choose it over more traditional junk food. During the study, kids ages 8 to 11 who hailed from varied socioeconomic groups were fed lunch. Each was allowed to take one of two dessert choices: an apple or a cookie. On the first day, the options were unadorned. On subsequent days, however, researchers mixed it up. One day the kids found Elmo stickers placed on the apple while the cookie was left plain. Another day, the cookie got the Elmo sticker while the apple remained unbranded. On the final day the apple was stickered with an unfamiliar character. The cookies were left as-is.

Researchers found that when the apple got the Elmo sticker kids picked it twice as often as they did when it didn’t have anything on it. Just as important: The Elmo sticker didn’t have any bearing on the cookie choice. Kids picked it at the same rate with or without the sticker. The unfamiliar character didn’t make a difference either way.

This is good news and bad news. The bad news: If it’s got a character on it, kids may be more likely to want it. My little one is a perfect example. Every time we pass the yogurt section she points out the Yoplait Dora the Explorer yogurt. Every time. Even though I’ve told her a million times it’s not organic and we only eat organic dairy. (FWIW, I was pleasantly surprised that Yoplait is using beet juice instead of Red #5, although it still has modified food starch, but as always I digress…)

The good news: The study provides some proof that parents can use Elmo or Dora or whomever their child loves to manipulate coax him or her into eating better and make better food choices. Sure, if you start them young they are probably going to eat fruits and vegetables on their own, but for those who didn’t or for those who are parents super-tasters, as my husband has dubbed himself (another word for “picky eater”) or those with sensory issues, now you’ve got another arrow in your quiver. You may actually be able to get your child to eat a sweet potato, for instance, by dressing it up in a Spiderman costume.

The actual study, which will be published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine has not come out yet, but you can read a summary of it by clicking here.

What’s your best idea to get kids to eat healthier? What hasn’t worked? Share below so others can give your ideas a try. Also, see the Facebook Like button? The one to the right? Please like this site on Facebook. I post one or two articles or resources per day. It’s a great way to keep up with what matters to natural-as-possible parents — or anyone who is just doing the best that they can do.

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