To Get Teens to Eat Vegetables, Tell Them They’re ‘Sticking it to the Man’

I hope you’ve been practicing your poker face through the toddler years, because you’re going to need it when your kids are teenagers and you find yourself having to say ridiculous things like, “The Man doesn’t want you to eat your vegetables, but fuck him and his anti-broccoli ways!” without laughing.

According to Ars Technica, a new study indicates that it’s pretty easy to get teens to eat better by “using their social values.” In other words, researchers educated their teenage test subjects about some of the food industry’s less pleasant marketing tactics, like misleadingly marketing sugary, unhealthful foods as healthful ones. (Every week it seems like I pick up some kind of organic raw kale smoothie or something at the grocery, and the bottle is all covered in leaves and hippie graphic design to look crunchy and healthful, and when I flip it over the first three ingredients are all different forms of sugar. Sigh.)  They also spent time saying that unhealthful foods are marketed toward children and the poor, which set people up for long-term negative health consequences they may  never fully recover from.

Ars Technica wrote that the researchers basically framed healthful eating as a way of “sticking it to the man,” and it worked. Kids didn’t like the idea that Big Sugar or Big Agro are trying to manipulate them, and they don’t like the idea of big corporations manipulating people and sacrificing people’s health for profit, and after the lessons, the kids who got that “the  man wants you to eat tons of sugar” talk were less likely than their peers to choose foods full of sugar, fat, or simple carbohydrates. They were more likely to take fruit or vegetables than their peers, and more likely to eschew sweetened beverages.

The researchers think this approach appeals to kids’ sense of independence and a mistrust of unjust authority figures. It might take some maneuvering to convince kids of this from the position of a parent, because as far as teenagers are concerned, parents are also unjust authority figures trying to manipulate them. (OK, they’re not entirely wrong. I am trying to manipulate them into eating vegetables.)

Traditional vegetable-promoting techniques like “It’s good for you! You’ll be happier when you’re old if you eat more healthfully now,” don’t necessarily work for teens. Teenagers tend to be short-sighted about this stuff.  But they do like the immediate feeling of reward that comes with having made a decision like, “Fuck you, old man, you can’t trick me into eating a cookie! I’m not one of your sheeple. I’m going to eat a carrot!”

It sounds comical, but it almost certainly would have worked on me when I was a young teen. Now if only there were a way to convince kids that they’re sticking it to the man by picking up their clothes and not texting while driving, then we might be set.

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