We all know eating vegetables is an important part of a healthy diet.
But how on Earth do you get a child to eat their vegetables when they don’t appreciate the health benefits like most of us do as parents?
Here’s some important stuff to know about kids:
Children innately prefer sweet tasting foods and avoid bitter tasting foods.
Most vegetables (especially green vegetables) are bitter tasting.
Cognitive development (understanding and reasoning, for example about health) changes with time. Encouraging a 3 year old to eat their vegetables because they are 'healthy' is going to be far less effective than having the same conversation with a 12 year old.
Most vegetables do not offer an innate/immediate reward, unlike sugar and fat which send signals to the brain to encourage preference of these foods.
TASTE HACKS TO IMPROVE VEGETABLE CONSUMPTION FOR TODDLERS AND KIDS
Food scientist John Hayes says it best:
“If food does not taste good, people will not eat it.”
The more we expose our children to foods such as vegetables the more likely they are to learn to like the food. Don't stop offering a food because it's rejected the first, or even the 20th time.
Baking/roasting vegetables enhances the sugars naturally present in vegetables, making them sweeter to taste.
Prepare vegetables in a variety of ways
Prepare and serve vegetables in a variety of ways and note your child’s preference. For example, offer your child carrot that has been steamed, mashed, baked and raw (grated or thin strips for younger childre) and note when your child is more likely to accept the vegetable offered.
Add sweetness to block the bitter taste
This doesn’t mean covering broccoli with tablespoons of sugar, but serving bitter vegetables with fruit or a pinch of sugar, honey or a dollop of tomato sauce can make a vegetable more liked (balancing act here, we still want to be able to taste the vegetable). Once we learn to like a vegetable paired with a sweet tasting food we can eventually remove the sweet tasting food and STILL like the vegetable (because we’ve learnt to like the taste through exposure). HOW COOL!
Add fat to enhance satiety
Most vegetables are naturally low in fat. Adding a small amount of fat can enhance flavour and satiety. For example, try adding butter or olive oil, serving with a white or cheese sauce or serving vegetables with a dipping sauce (eg yogurt Tzatziki or hummus). As with sweetness, keep this in check by ensuring a child can still taste the vegetable (it's a balancing act) and that their overall food intake covers the five food groups with minimal discretionary foods. Similar to sweetness, adding fat to vegetables can be reduced and removed as a child learns to like the taste of the vegetable it's paired with.
A recent study took this a step further and found that something as simple as taste-focused labels could impact vegetable consumption POSITIVELY. Children were more likely to choose vegetables with a delicious-sounding name like ‘Herb n’ Honey Balsamic Glazed Turnips’ over a health-focused name like ‘Healthy Choice Turnips’ (the dishes were the same).
If a child gains the nutritional benefits of vegetables alongside a pinch of sugar, dollop of tomato sauce or a fun name then as a picky eating nutritionist I’m here for it!
Want a collection of recipes that kids love? With my 6 Steps to Meal Time Success program (covering all of this in detail and so much more) you'll get your free copy of Recipes Kids Love, filled with 21 kid-approved healthy recipes that kids and families LOVE!
Increasing Vegetable Intake by Emphasizing Tasty and Enjoyable Attributes: A Randomized Controlled Multisite Intervention for Taste-Focused Labeling. Turnwald BP, Bertoldo JD, Perry MA, Policastro P, Timmons M, Bosso C, Connors P, Valgenti RT, Pine L, Challamel G, Gardner CD, Crum AJ. Psychol Sci. 2019 Oct 2:956797619872191. doi: 10.1177/0956797619872191. [Epub ahead of print]. PMID: 31577177.
Zeinstra, G.G., Koelen, M.A., Kok, F.J. et al. Cognitive development and children's perceptions of fruit and vegetables; a qualitative study. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 4, 30 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1186/1479-5868-4-30
Duffy EM, Hayes JE, Feeney EL. Understanding taste and texture perception to enhance vegetable acceptance. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society (2017), 76.