How I Used Framing Effects to Get My Son to Eat Vegetables

My young son, Nicholas, hates vegetables.

He has always hated vegetables. Like any other red-blooded American boy, he loves pizza and McDonald’s (although I think that the Happy Meal toy plays a big part in that love). And if your kid is like mine, you too know that it’s almost impossible to get them to eat vegetables at dinner on a consistent basis. So I’m going to give you, my reader, a scientifically proven way to use psychology — specifically, regulatory focus — to get your kid to eat them.

Now I’m a behavioral scientist, so I study my Nicholas very closely. It’s what I do! And he’s quite fascinating from a behavioral psychology perspective. And one thing I know for sure is that Nicholas is naturally much more “promotion-focused”, meaning he focuses on the upside or good things that will happen when he eats. In fact, he sees dinner as a way to get what he really wants: a sweet dessert and some extra TV time before bed. Dinner and food provide him more good in his eyes and focuses on all the great things that dinner can give him. That’s just who he is.

Personally, I am more “prevention-focused” (risk-averse) in general, so I generally approach food through a different lens — I’m generally more concerned with the consequences or bad things that might happen if I eat the wrong food, particularly those chicken wings from the bar down the street.

Because Nicholas is more promotion-focused, I need to frame eating vegetables in a way that focuses him on the upside of eating vegetables. Frankly this creates the path of least resistance for me and makes all of our lives easier in the Leach household. So the first thing we instituted in our home when he was a toddler was the rule of the happy plate. A “happy plate” is one with all the veggies eaten off it. So almost daily, I remind him, “You can only get dessert if you make a happy plate!” With this new focus, he looks at his plate as the pathway to dessert and does what he can to stomach a few bites of broccoli.

Then he’ll ask, “Daddy, daddy, is it a happy plate?” And I say, “Not yet.” We go through this back-and-forth dance until we feel that he has gotten about as much greens into him as possible and we let him get a dessert.

He’ll continue to eat the vegetables, but not because he wants to eat them. He does it because he’s focusing on gaining the reward he’ll get from having a “happy plate.”

But sometimes the “happy plate” strategy just doesn’t work. In that case, I’ll employ a second strategy.

Nicholas loves Marvel superheroes. He actually wants to be a superhero. So the second strategy is to associate the veggies with what (or who) he wants to be. “Nick,” I tell him, “if you eat your vegetables, you’ll be more like Spiderman. You can do flips.”

Last, visualization of his key goal at dinner is another strategy that I use to activate Nick’s promotion focus. Before dinner, I’ll sometimes call him over to the freezer, open the door, and ask him to pick out the exact cup of ice cream he wants. I let him hold that ice cream and look at it.

Then I make him put it back and close the freezer door himself.

Horrible, right?

But here’s the thing: if he can visualize that ice cream and he can focus on gaining it as a reward, I’m much more likely to get him to eat vegetables.

Other strategies I tried just don’t work for me. Why? Because they were either prevention-focused strategies, or they were strategies where Nicholas gained something he wanted, but we didn’t want as parents. Examples:

  • “Nick, you can’t leave the table until you eat your veggies.” In his world, that’s great, because if he doesn’t leave the table, he can’t take a bath. If he really holds out, he might not have to go to sleep or to school. He’s thinking, I’ll play that game. He’s OK with that.

  • “Nick, if you don’t eat your veggies, you’ll get sick.” But getting sick is another reason he wouldn’t have to go to school.

  • “You’ll lose your teeth.” That didn’t work either, because, thanks to the Tooth Fairy, teeth are his source of income. So he’s like, “Yeah!”

Sure, I might eventually get him to eat vegetables with these prevention, consequence-focused strategies and make him and myself miserable in the process. But why would I do that when I know that a promotion-focused strategy is the path of least resistance for him? Knowing that makes both of our lives much easier.

Similarly, brands that message to the dominant regulatory focus of their target consumers can also create a path of least resistance and help influence their behaviors.

Do you know the regulatory focus of your consumers?

For more advice on framing your brand based on regulatory focus, pick-up a copy of my book, Marketing to Mindstates on Amazon.