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Five Ways Science Can Get Your Kids To Eat Vegetables

Eat your vegetables.

It’s a mantra often repeated in our community – eat your greens, fill your plate with vegetables, nutrient density for the win. But it’s hard to get grown-ups to eat their veggies. In fact, we devoted an entire page in It Starts With Food to talk about why you don’t like vegetables, and three easy things you can do to truly begin to enjoy them.

But if you think grown-ups are tough to convince… try a five-year-old.

Today’s article features five ways to get kiddos to eat their greens—but these aren’t trite tips that merely sound good in theory. These are five concepts grounded in science and psychology, and infused with a dash of good old-fashioned common sense. So dig into our tips, and prepare to blind your kids with science at your next family dinner.

Science Tip #1


Like, early. Early-early. While they’re still just a tiny nugget in mom’s belly.  Researchers from Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia found babies can build up a taste for healthy foods in the womb. The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found flavors like carrot, garlic, anise, and mint were passed from mother to baby via the amniotic fluid, leading to increased taste preferences for those flavors later in life. Yet another reason for women to eat their greens—not only while you’re pregnant, but while breastfeeding, too, as those flavors are also passed through mother’s milk.

Sources: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11389286, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22555188

Science Tip #2

People are more likely to try something new if they’re in the right state of mind, but a state of excitement is not the right time to introduce new foods to children. A birthday party or family holiday generally sees your kids bouncing off the walls and showing off for friends and family – all of which makes him or her unlikely go give those artichokes or steamed spinach a go. (New food is inherently stimulating for children, and the combination of new situation and new food might just be too much.)

When you do find just the right time to ask them to try something new, introduce the new food, and then be patient. Repeated exposure to a food helps a child accept it, and experts estimate that most children need five to ten exposures before giving it a thumbs-up (0r at least not whining when it’s served). Try not to get frustrated if, after the fourth time with green beans, the kid is still skeptical – and use these next tips to make that acceptance process that much easier.

From Barb Stuckey’s Taste What You’re Missing,

Science Tip #3

What kids find visually appealing is very different than what appeals to us grown-ups. A new Cornell University study finds that colorful food fare is more appealing to children than adults. Specifically, food plates with seven different items and six different colors are particularly appealing to children. Which means parents of picky eaters can encourage their children to eat a more diverse diet by introducing vegetable mixes with lots of colors and shapes—think carrot rounds, pepper chunks, sweet onion slices, and broccoli trees—much more appealing to your kiddo than a giant pile of spinach.

Source: http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/outreach/child-plate.html

Science Tip #4

Around age 2, kids start to become neophobic—afraid or unwilling to try new tastes. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. If young children strayed from the typical foods hunted or foraged in their area, they likely would have run into trouble. But in today’s modern world, this means if you’ve not yet introduced kale, broccoli, or spinach by the “terrible twos,” you’ll likely have a terrible time getting them to try those greens now.

But take a lesson from what Heinz has known for years—take something unfamiliar, and make it taste familiar, and you’ve got yourself a happy (eating) kiddo. Dip those veggies in Dreamy Avocado Dressing (from It Starts With Food), Sunshine Sauce (from Well Fed), or the Barbecue Sauce, sans spicy stuff (from Paleo Comfort Foods) and you’ll find everything new is old again—which, according to your children, is a good thing.

Inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw

Science Tip #5

The “chameleon effect” is a psychological term used to describe our natural tendency to imitate another person—things like speech inflections, body language, or mannerisms.  Why do we do this? Because mimicry increases liking, and a sense of belonging. When we act or talk like someone else, science shows us they actually do like us more for it.

Your kiddos are no different. They want to be liked and approved of. They watch everything you do, and more often than not, take their cues for their behavior from you. This means when you roll your eyes at broccoli, make a funny face with asparagus, or complain about the Brussels sprouts, your child is likely to do the same. So… use this to your parental advantage! Make a big deal about how delicious the broccoli tastes; make a production of dipping each bite of asparagus into the dressing and smile heartily with each bite; shout a big “hooray!” when it’s Brussel sprout night—and your child will likely follow in your footsteps.

Inspired by Barb Stuckey’s Taste What You’re Missing, PsyBlog

Special Bonus Tip

Psychologists frequently warn against using rewards to encourage behavior in children. First, if you promise them something sweet and decadent as a reward, you are setting them up to desire those sweet “rewards” for various behaviors for the rest of their lives. And logic says that by offering a reward for eating particular foods, you are stigmatizing them (those lima beans are so awful, you need a bribe to get your kids to choke ‘em down), which makes children less likely to eat those foods willingly once the rewards are removed.

But it’s possible that rewarding a child for eating vegetables might just prove effective. New research from University College London shows that with rewards, children not only eat their vegetables, but learn to like them, too. Of course, rewards for eating healthy foods should never be unhealthy foods like ice cream or candy, but stickers, extra play time, or even effusive praise can lead your child down the path of more veggies, even after the rewards stop. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the use of rewards is appropriate for your kids’ personalities and preferences.

Sources: Psychology Today, http://pss.sagepub.com/content/22/2/190

Your Kids (Heart) Vegetables!

Just because your favorite kiddo-vegetable-eating trick didn’t come from a scientific study doesn’t mean it won’t work! Share your favorite tips and tricks with other parents here—and let us know if any of these science-based theories actually work with your children.

 

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Comments

  1. says

    The “chameleon effect” works great with our Paleo one-year-old. Anytime he seems disinterested in a food (vegetable or otherwise), we make a dramatic show of eating it in front of him, and remarking on how delicious it is. Suddenly, he has to have whatever it is Mommy or Daddy is eating :) It doesn’t always mean that he ends up eating much (or any) of it, but at least he puts it in his mouth and tastes it on his own volition.

    For older kids, I read a great tip that suggests children should be required to *taste* new foods, but not to swallow them. By knowing that they have the option to spit out a food that they don’t like, they are more likely to agree to try new things. http://itsnotaboutnutrition.squarespace.com/home/2010/12/7/why-some-kids-should-spit.html

  2. Susan says

    Nice list–thanks! I would only add that I know more than one child who ate a wide variety of foods up until age 2-4 or so (curries, spinach, fish, *everything*!) and then narrowed their focus to only a very few foods for the next couple of years (ice cream sandwiches!). So for some individuals, rule #4 doesn’t really hold… it doesn’t matter what they used to eat, their tastes have changed and previously accepted foods are no longer accepted.

    We focus on offering a wide variety of foods and tidbits of health information, and on not making a big deal out of what gets eaten and what doesn’t.

  3. KF says

    I’m sure tired of the “everyone knows that kids dislike vegetables” meme being passed around – I think repeating this perpetuates the myth of kids hating to eat veggies.

    Part of it for both kids and adults is palate training – if we only eat sweet/salty foods with a particular texture like makes up much of the industrial food supply, our tastes become acclimated to that and fresh veggies don’t always meet that taste/texture model.

    Part of it is also eating really fresh veggies, in season, that actually have flavor. Most of the stuff in grocery stores that were grown on industrial farms and trucked in thousands of miles tastes really horrible – like bitter cardboard. And don’t even mention canned/frozen veg. I recognize they have their place nutritionally and budget-wise, but if that is the way we are training ourselves (kids and adults alike) to like veggies, no wonder people dislike them.

    And the third part is finding good ways to prepare and/or cook vegetables that enhances the natural sweetness of the veggies themselves. There are many cookbooks that offer great starting places for cooking veggies in ways that make them even better. (One of my faves is “Fast, Fresh, & Green”) A little education on the part of the cook goes a long way here.

    It’s really hard not to like a fresh tomato in summer or a carrot dug up after frost sweetens it up. Cabbage in the heat of summer is bitter (from the natural compounds plants make to keep bugs from eating them), but try it in the spring and fall after being subject to some cold weather and it’s incredibly delicious.

    My 2 kids beg for broccoli and brussels sprouts, take seconds and thirds of salad, and generally eat more veg than many grownups – without any fussing or specific parenting techniques. We serve really fresh, in-season veggies that we like to eat as adults, and (funny thing) my kids like eating them too.

  4. says

    Great minds think alike. I just did a blog on this recently. One major factor these days is that parents are just not leading their families in the ways of good nutrition. Convenience takes priority many days when it comes to food. However, there are great ways to sneak attack kids with good stuff too. If they don’t know they’re eating it, they won’t complain :)

  5. victoria says

    One really good blog that focuses explicitly on the topic of how to build good eating habits in kids (with a focus on picky eaters) is Dina Rose’s It’s Not About Nutrition (http://itsnotaboutnutrition.squarespace.com/). I have no stake in her site; I just enjoy it. She goes into quite a bit of detail about the mechanics of introducing new foods, and framing your choices more in terms of what habits they’ll build rather than whether they’re “the best” choices at a given moment.

  6. says

    I agree with your point that you need to start the kids off early on vegetables. Our kid’s don’t seem to mind them at all and they did start early. Nice article.

  7. Lynette says

    I thought we wouldn’t have any trouble with my son and veg. We love our veg, how could he not? Hmm. We have and still do bribe him, but only with other food that is on his plate or on the dinner table. i.e. more sausage (i slice his up) for another 3 spoonsful of veg. He is 2 1/2 he went through a phase of not liking all the veg he had eaten and enjoyed for ages too. In fact he still does sometimes, but generally will eat some after some coaxing. Also he has to try (now he is old enough to understand the idea) a few mouthfuls of everything on his plate – most of the time I dish him a little of everything we are having even if i know he generally doesn’t like it, esp in the veg category. The only exeption is if I do mince in tomatoey sauce – he almost never eats this – but i suspect his health will not be affected! He now eats a quite large variety with obvious enjoyment. Try lots of different approachs something will work. Mayo is great too – not that he always likes that, but most often will eat a nice mayonnaised salad with WHATEVER is in there ;-). Oh and one last thing the more junk food he has the more he wants! So if its been a bad weekend…

  8. says

    Lynette:

    “The more junk food he has, the more he wants…” Isn’t that true! We’ve observed this with just about everyone we’ve consulted with, in fact – grown-ups too!

    Best,
    Melissa

  9. Corie says

    Our family has found a great way to bridge the gap of what our kids should eat and what they actually eat. We have been taking Juice Plus for several months. They love it! I love it because it is just whole food! No supplements, just real food. I know it’s working because the other day, all four of my girls asked for SECONDS of BRUSSEL SPROUTS!! : )

  10. says

    My kids all eat their veggies quite nicely. . . but I’m always pushing for more veggies (who can eat 6 cups of leafy greens each day?). So, we add things like spinach, cabbage, and carrots to our ground meat and make smoothies with lots of spinach in them. These “hidden” veggies give the boost without my kids feeling like we are over-pushing the veggies. We also serve at least two veggies with dinner and the kids pack two different veggies in their lunch boxes every day.

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