How to encourage children to eat healthy food, how to promote childhood well-being through a healthy diet?
Against a background of growing concerns about food impact on health, parents, educators, public policymakers or researchers have been relentlessly striving to solve these quite challenging questions. Most of them actually know that the food issue cannot be tackled only through the nutritional lens, but that the scope needs to be enlarged to take into account the multiple reasons why children enjoy food experiences. They indeed perfectly know that children are more prone to adopt eating practices that make them happy rather than respect nutritional injunctions.
Yet, what makes children happy when eating? What does food well-being mean to them? A comprehensive understanding of the way children experience happiness and well-being in food context appears to be a prerequisite to consider how to transmit them healthy food practices.
To meet this objective, we have conducted child-centred studies with 6-11 year old French children to look at how they perceive and experience well-being in food situations. Our findings highlight that children experience food well-being in different ways. While they are aware of the food contribution to their health and then their objective well-being, they widely insist on the impact of food on their subjective well-being, also called “happiness” in psychology.
Unsurprisingly, they are first and foremost attracted to food experiences that provide them immediate pleasure and generate a transient feeling of hedonic subjective well-being. This taste-based pleasure reminds us that food sensory is a prerequisite of children’s happiness. Food pleasure also resides in the social experience related to commensality, i.e. the practice of eating together. Food practices are then social moments during which children enjoy spending time and interacting with their family or friends.
Yet, children’s food representations and experiences put forward that their food well-being cannot be reduced to its hedonic dimension, since it also stems from eudaemonic well-being. Defined in positive psychology, this facet of subjective well-being relies on children’s needs to build strong affective relationships, to enhance their self-esteem, and finally reflects their aspirations to grow up by acquiring new competences and empowerment.
While the adoption by children of healthy eating practices widely relies on taste learning, this learning needs to combine sensory pleasure as source of hedonic well-being with the psychosocial levers of eudaemonic childhood well-being embedded in food practices. We actually put forward that valuing children’s agency positively impacts their willingness to taste novel foods and adopt healthy eating habits.
To do so, we invite stakeholders with interests in the child’s food socialisation to multiply participative education activities, such as cooking, gardening or involvement in food decision-making and menu choices at home or at school.
We also advocate for reverse socialisation, when children transmit their food knowledge and know-how to adults. Many children indeed know what a balanced diet means and most of them are willing to implement their competences in everyday food practices, like meal preparations or grocery shopping. All these involving actions contribute to the satisfaction of the child’s needs for empowerment and belongingness to his/her community, and finally his/her food well-being.
 Ryan, R.M and Deci, E.L. (2001), On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic Well-Being, Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 52, pp. 141–66.
Mentioned in the article
Valérie Hémar-Nicolas is associate professor of consumer behavior and management at Paris Sud University – Paris Saclay (France). She is a member of the RITM research center in economics and management.
Valérie Hémar-Nicolas is an expert in children's food consumption, focusing on food well-being, social interactions around eating practices and influences of food marketing.