We use whatever leverage we have — dessert, screen time, an extra story at bed time, even money — and often feel humbled by our own antics over a small portion of green beans. When new research purports to help us get a square meal into our child’s belly, we jump on it.
The latest study from the University of Leeds gives new support to an old theory: familiarity breeds affection. Preschoolers were introduced to a new vegetable, in this case artichoke puree. One group’s artichoke was plain, the second tried sweetened, and a third group’s came enriched with vegetable oil. Previous research suggested that the sweetened or enriched purees might have more success gaining acceptance, but that was not the case in the Leeds study. The only factor which seemed to reliably increase consumption was simple repetition. 8-10 exposures is recommended, but be patient: it may take twice that. Just keep serving and enjoying them yourself, and encouraging small tastes.
Once you scratch the surface, researchers (like parents) have tried every conceivable approach to boost veggie eating, and can make a case for wildly differing approaches. Brigham Young University informs us that paying children to eat their vegetables works — that is, the children in the study did in fact consume the vegetables with the incentive of a few coins. Unfortunately, what they’re learning is that healthy food is an unpleasant chore which requires payment, rather than a sensory pleasure which will make them healthy and strong in the long run. Predictably, once the money stopped, so did the vegetable consumption. Using dessert as a reward instead of money ramps-up children’s already-intense longing for sugar. A more palatable approach — and it’s surprising how unconventional it sounds, given its simplicity — holds that kids will voluntarily eat a vegetable if they truly comprehend how it benefits their body. Researchers used specially created children’s books to teach preschoolers the biological processes involved in certain essential nutrients. This understanding more than doubled vegetable consumption!
Much has been written on this subject, and most parents have done enough of their own “field research” to write their own book. If you’re worried about your children’s produce intake, here are a few time-tested ideas:
- Curb snacking. Hungry kids are more likely to enjoy anything you set in front of them. Ideally, 2-3 snack-free hours before a meal set the stage for enthusiastic, focused eating. And when they do need a snack, some raw vegetables and cheese slices will do just fine. Cookies and soft drinks make everything else “not sweet enough” by comparison.
- Eat in courses. If children come to the table hungry and find only a plate of cut-up raw veggies or a simple salad, they can start the meal with some fresh food that won’t fill them up too much to enjoy the main course. Offer at least two vegetables plain and undressed — in some cases, the sensory experience of oily dressings or messy sauces will discourage eating. For side dishes, offer the option of sauce on the side.
- Cook vegetables quickly for appealing color and texture. Overcooked vegetables have stronger smells that can overwhelm sensitive little noses, and it’s surprising how much kids are influenced by visual appeal. Quick boiling or microwaving preserves more nutrients than frying. A touch of sea salt and a pat of butter always add savor.
- Keep it fresh and local. On weekends, stop at the local farmer’s market with the kids so they can help select the veggies to cook together for dinner. In the supermarket, look for produce with vibrant, crisp leaves and stalks: droopy veggies with browning edges is a sign they’ve sat on the shelf too long, losing most nutrients as well as flavor and texture. Those packages of pre-cut vegetables may be tempting, but loss of vitamins and juiciness are not worth the convenience (besides, how long does it really take to rinse and chop a head of broccoli?). With a little research, you might discover a small farm nearby where your kids can see food growing and buy it direct from a veggie stand or CSA.
- Tis a gift to be simple. Young children, especially, tend to prefer their food separate and recognizable. Three different colorful veggies (a steamed broccoli tree, a few carrot coins, and some crunchy red pepper smiles) sitting unadorned on a white plate may have more success than an elaborate casserole requiring hours of preparation. And while many parents are seduced by single-serving “squeezable” fruit-and-veggie purees, keep in mind your children are not learning to like vegetables when all they taste is the elevated sweetness of the added “fruit concentrates” and flavorings.
- Try flavor-pairing. Though added sugar should be avoided, if your kids like to dip their carrot sticks in peanut butter or their brussels sprouts in cream cheese, you may have a promising gateway to introduce other more “adult” vegetables. A plate of simply cooked vegetables covered in melted cheddar becomes a healthy meal in itself.
- Grow, pick, and cook together. Children develop a deep relationship with food through gardening, even in a few pots or a window box. That bond grows through learning to cook, a skill which will serve them well in later years. Experiment: a child who “hates” cooked carrots may love them raw, and many who won’t touch coleslaw will happily graze on lettuce, kale, and green beans plucked fresh in the summer sun.
- Sometimes one bite is enough. If a child is forced or bargained into eating a plateful of food that actually repulses her, she is developing only negative associations with that food. The short-term nutrition is far outweighed by the memory-pairing of the vegetable with crying or fighting. If a child is willing to simply taste the food each time it is offered, familiarity may eventually do its work.
If nothing seems to help, keep in mind that every child is unique, and will change over time. In the Leeds study, some kids learned to like artichokes, while some didn’t: 16% of kids were considered “non-eaters” whose consumption didn’t change much even with repeated exposure. Sensitivity, rather than stubbornness, may be the issue. Three- and four-year-olds tend to be particularly sensitive to new foods, strong flavors or smells, and mixed foods. We’ve all been on the receiving end of pressure and ultimatums: they rarely increase anyone’s enjoyment, or improve the atmosphere at family dinners.
Over the years, inclusion in a family who eats and loves vegetables together will have more influence than any short-term “strategies”. Yet another study confirms that children who regularly sit down to family meals eat more vegetables. If schedules prevent eating together every day, making it happen even a couple of times a week makes a big difference. Every day we have the opportunity to support kids in forming healthy eating habits. Tasting mindfully, delighting in flavor experiences, learning about hunger and satiety sensations, and saying no when they need to: these practices will serve a lifetime of health.