Choose Your Words Carefully to Convince Family and Friends to Eat Healthier

by | May 29, 2013
Cauliflower French Fries

Cauliflower French Fries

Sometimes your own motivation isn’t what stops you from eating healthy, but rather the nags and complaints from the people that expect you to feed them dinner.

Healthy eating is rarely a popular idea, and it’s easy to understand why. What we’ve been told is healthy are boring, steamed, overcooked vegetables and food with no fat, salt or flavor.

So you might find that announcing you’re going to cook healthier can backfire, since no one wants to feel they are being deprived of delicious food.

But those of us familiar with real healthy eating—seasonal, fresh whole foods—know it is actually delicious and much more tasty than the processed junk food that has numbed our taste buds for the past few decades.

So how can we get others to share our enthusiasm?

The psychology of good taste

It turns out that our perception of taste is deeply rooted in psychology. If you believe something you’re going to eat will taste good or bad before you eat it, chances are your experience won’t be too far off from your expectations. We can use this fact to our advantage by priming diners into believing they are about to eat something amazing, not something “healthy.”

Offering delicious rather than healthy food has additional benefits as well. Not only will people be more excited to eat what you serve, it will also help them eat less later on. One study showed that food is more satisfying if it is described as “tasty” rather than “healthy.” This means you and your family will be less hungry overall if you choose the right words when describing your meals.

To get your family excited about your healthy cooking you can use the same tactics copywriters and journalists use to pull us into their writing. Restaurants also use this trick to get you to order the most expensive items on the menu.

The key is to remember that if you’re faced with a table of skeptics you can’t just serve healthy food, you have to sell it.

Make headlines

All great copywriting starts with a captivating headline, and a chef’s headline is the name of the dish or menu item being served. When food is what you’re selling, you want to be as descriptive as possible.

Use colorful words that evoke images of seasonal freshness. For example, “salad” can be a hard sell for dinner, but few people will turn their noses up at “Ginger scented little gem lettuces with grapefruit, hazelnuts and goat cheese.”

Ingredient copy

When choosing your headline, start with ingredients. Did you find something exceptional at the farmers market? Use the entire name of the item: not just kale, Tuscan kale. If the name of an ingredient isn’t particularly inspiring, you can embellish it with other words that elicit thoughts of freshness or seasonality.

Adjectives to describe healthy foods:

  • farm fresh
  • organic
  • sweet
  • baby
  • heirloom
  • young
  • late season
  • crisp
  • spring
  • summer
  • fall
  • winter

Using descriptive words to showcase your ingredients lets eaters know that the meal is special and the experience is valuable. Suddenly those vegetables aren’t so boring.

Cooking copy

In addition to ingredients, you can also use descriptive copy to highlight your cooking methods. People enjoy eating meals that they believe were prepared with care using methods that accentuate the food’s flavor. Words that sound like you’ve gone the extra mile in the kitchen can do wonders for making people’s mouths water.

Make an effort to appeal to as many senses as possible, particularly the nose, eyes and palette.

Adjectives to describe cooking methods:

  • roasted
  • sautéed
  • tossed
  • scented
  • whisked
  • seared
  • bacon-laced
  • toasted
  • warm
  • chilled
  • spicy
  • savory
  • smokey
  • sweet
  • marinated
  • poached
  • grilled
  • drizzled
  • rubbed
  • slow (roasted, cooked, etc.)
  • hand (made, tossed, etc.)

Feel free to steal food descriptions from your favorite restaurant menus as well. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, restaurants have this down to an art.

Beyond the headline

Your compelling copy should not stop with your headline. Think about how you will describe your dishes as you are shopping and planning, and when your audience asks what’s for dinner psyche them up about the fabulous meal they’re going to have.

Each time someone asks about what you are cooking it is an opportunity for you to make your food taste better and be more satisfying. Never hesitate to mention what a unique seasonal treat you were able to get your hands on, or the touching back story behind the farm you bought from.

Take away

If you want happy diners, what you are serving is less important than how you describe it. If you’re excited about the food you’re preparing, don’t be shy about expressing this to anyone who is willing to listen.

How do you get naysayers to eat healthy food?

Originally published April 21, 2010

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36 Responses to “Choose Your Words Carefully to Convince Family and Friends to Eat Healthier”

  1. Mike says:

    Yep. Last night I made a dressing with roasted red bell pepper, a lovely, fruity olive oil, and thyme (lightly toasted, of course).

    This is also useful for educating my kids. Kid’s menus rarely read as nicely as the adult menus because it’s all chicken strips and mac ‘n cheese. There are only so many ways to describe that kind of “food.”

    Awesome advice, as always.

  2. John says:

    This is great. I’ve always been a picky eater, but I think I could be convinced to eat just about anything that is described as “bacon-laced”. haha.

  3. My daughter was eating breakfast this morning and we were talking about bones and muscles and she breaks out with “I want healthy food!” Which I did love, but when I pointed out that she was eating healthy food (scrambled eggs, multigrain toast and dried apricots) she seemed a little less interested in the concept.

    It’s funny how people respond to words, though. I have a girlfriend who just read Michael Pollan and has decided she’s going to raise a ruckus by making her family eat a vegetarian meal for Mother’s Day. But she’s making brunch, and there will be strata and crepes involved. I bet if she didn’t tell anyone that it was “Vegetarian”, nobody would notice that there wasn’t any meat.

  4. Nicole says:

    I love this article. I started doing this, unintentionally, over the last two weeks after buying my brand new favorite cookbook: Vegetables Everyday by Jack Bishop! All of his recipes employ the various cooking techniques, so I am sure to announce my veggies with flair :) It has definitely made for quite delicious food that has been so much healthier than what we were eating before.

  5. I love this tip Darya! This is exactly the type of sneaky-smart idea I’d expect from a smartie like you. :) Totally love it.

    Another idea is to make sure the presentation matches. I know we don’t all have time to plate and present everything… but making sure you’ve got a range of colors on the plate is a great way to entice your family. Think greens, reds, blues/purples, yellows. Yum! :)

  6. jennifer says:

    Thanks for this! I think part of the reason my family reacts so negatively to the way I talk about eating/cooking is because they don’t like the term “healthy” (as you mentioned). From now on, I will entice them with your verbiage and see if there reactions change!

  7. Rosa says:

    Truly love your site! And read this at the right time! I am trying to eat better, and keep saying “healthy!” I believe if I shift my thinking, my meals would be way more satisfying.

    Thanks!!

  8. Lisa says:

    Darya,
    Love this website! My family tried your Quick Easy Kale with pecans recipe and we love it! My 13 year old twin boys were fighting over it! We used pistachios, instead of pecans, we just like them better! Thanks for the great recipe!

  9. Jenn says:

    Great post Darya! Another thing to consider is to make a dish taste really flavorful by making sure to include herbs & spices – many pre-processed packaged foods contain much higher amounts of salt than one would normally cook with, and someone used to those foods may start off with the impression that “healthy” and “fresh” food tastes rather bland – and that may also lead to developing a bias against “healthy” foods.

  10. Somehow our “vision” has gotten perverted. Nicely cooked veggies are so much more pleasing to the eye than mac and cheese. Today I fed a three-year old brown rice and peas at his request, but I snuck that olive oil an sea salt on there.

  11. Janet Nezon says:

    Great post! So timely just after Mother’s Day too! When I first became a mom, my (brilliant) mother told me that so much of motherhood was salesmanship! How we present everything to those around us makes such a huge difference in the response we will get from them. As someone who works with families and individuals to promote “healthy eating,” I couldn’t agree more with your approach. Focusing on the culinary adjectives works great for some; for kids I often suggest focusing on some fun element of their food – ie. “how many colours did you eat?” Making a “rainbow plate” makes food more appealing to people of any age. In fact, there’s research to suggest that we even absorb more nutrients from meals we enjoy more! (gets that cephalic phase of digestion going!)
    Love what you do!! (P.S. my favourite colour is purple too – your mother’s day post really hit home with me)

  12. Renee Martin says:

    I love this post! I learned this technique a few months back and immediately implemented the ideas here. What a huge difference it made in getting friends and family to eat my nutritionally wonderful organic meals — without them even knowing how good it was for them!

  13. Steve L. Stranz says:

    This is an excellent article and I truly appreciate your efforts to enlighten people.
    Thank you again and keep up the great work.

  14. summer says:

    I’ve been on a diet for a while, eating healthily, went to get a burger the other day, it tasted like cardboard. Moral of the story? Trust your instincts not what other people tell you.

  15. Susan says:

    Love your blog and email updates…I cannot open the beet recipe?

  16. Lisa says:

    After taking a cooking class from a locally famous chef, I was astounded by the amount of salt and fresh spices…..she used many times more than I would have used at home….where I would use a half teaspoon of basil, she used four tablespoons dried, plus chopped fresh, and lots more salt. And she stressed the freshness of the spices…..not the two year old bottle of pale basil, but freshly dried bright green and packaged within the last month. It made a huge difference in the tastefullness of the dishes. I’ve started adding more and fresher spices to my home cooking and everyone is much happier.

  17. Ian Dixon says:

    Another important part of the psychology of good food is the appearance. Take the mint leaves off the roasted beets and they would look bland and probably not get eaten. Having them on makes for a much more colourful dish and adds to the flavour too.
    People are much more likely to tuck in to food if it looks good. It is something restaurants know well so they will get the presentation right before serving a meal. Just a little parsley sprinkled on top can make all the difference.
    Certainly an article that was worth me reading and it has given me ideas for how to word things in the recipes that I write on Experimental Chefs

  18. Dee says:

    Darya, I’m big on lists and checklists! would use these in menu planning for variety etc… Good article, thank you :) !

  19. Chez Us says:

    Great minds … think alike. http://chezus.com/?s=roasted+beets – love it!!!

  20. Thanks so much for this post, I’m trying so hard to convince my dad and my husband’s parents to eat healthier…if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything!

  21. Lindsay D says:

    I’m on day 2 of the “reset” period – I have to say, this is pretty easy to do (mind you, the weekend may be a little tough with not drinking wine!). I made lists of the foods I love – fruit, veggies, herbs, grains, etc. and then made a list of meals I cook that fit within the reset restrictions – the options are endless! And the best part, I’m cooking again, which is super fun (and something I haven’t been doing enough of since I live in NYC).

    I think the way you position food to your friends and family is key (I’m also in PR). When you think about it, it’s not rocket science – but in a way – it is because we lose sight of the simple stuff.

    I loved your book and look forward to more blog posts. I think this is the life/health change I desperately needed. I will be writing a blog post on Foodist this week! :)

    Congrats!!

  22. Dave Taddeo says:

    my kids eat what i buy at the grocery store. easy. :p
    other people are so hard to convince without being ‘preachy’. then they try to justify all kinds of things in their diets including eating too much.

  23. Lin says:

    I live too far from my family to do much about changing their eating habits (doesn’t help they’re in the food desert that is northern North Dakota). However, when I go home, my most effective tactic has been this line: “Hey, I’ll make dinner tonight.” It works surprisingly well.

  24. julie says:

    BF and I just had a huge fight about eating healthy vs crap. Went hiking this weekend, and though I try to explain that no matter how much I like English peas and pistachios, I will drop them and eat his fritos, and that’s human nature, I can’t control with willpower. We’ll have to work that one out.

    I get a bit annoyed at restaurant menus when they mention the farm, the ingredient, and the cooking method, it just seems pretentious in the end. To me, anyway, though I’m a fan of peasant food. Seems a few adjectives double or triple the price at times, but that’s at restaurants. BF eats what I cook, though makes faces. My parents won’t eat, either because I add salt, or weird ingredients (seaweed, herbs), or both. When I explain that the overprocessed, refined crap they are eating likely has MORE salt, that’s okay, because he can look at label and know how much. Not much I can do with that one.

  25. Andrew says:

    It seems we are all falling for the hype that if something is described as a healthy option, farm raised, 100% pure beef (you know who) then its better for us.
    The big chains have used this to their advantage over the years and their millions of dollars of slick advertising has had a devastating effect on many a nations health.
    They have been using food psychology manipulation for decades.

  26. Nick A says:

    Any chance you’re doing something for your book in Los Angeles? Would be cool to hear you talk food. :-)

  27. Kerry G says:

    This is a great article. I so agree. My mother has this terrible habit of always criticizing her own cooking. She’ll take two bites and say, “Oh, I forgot the x” or “It should have had another 10 minutes” or “The recipe said [insert interesting ingredient] but they didn’t have any in the store.” We have tried over and over to get her to stop this and let us enjoy her delicious meals, but she’s 78 now, I think it may be too late to change her :(

    Anyway I have always made a big effort to avoid doing the same thing but I never thought to actually talk UP the food instead. Seems like a revolutionary idea having grown up in my family, but I will give it a try :)

  28. There are definitely a lot of people that hear the word “healthy” and run the other way. It’s too bad that they don’t realize how great that healthy food tastes without having to be tricked into it but this is an excellent tip. I love that you’ve got examples of the words that can be used to get more people to try these new healthy foods.

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