Raising Vegetable Eaters

Date: 06/17/2014    Written by: Beth Levine

Raising Vegetable Eaters

Many a parent laments the fact that they just can't get their kids to eat healthy foods, especially vegetables. Saying no thank you to salad, passing on that side of string beans, and picking out the pieces of broccoli in the casserole are all common behaviors for lots of children. But if you want to raise a child to eat nutritiously, veggies are an important component. The key, according to new research, may be to start your tykes off young eating vegetables and to keep offering them numerous times even if they're not consuming them at first.

The study, which took place at the University of Leeds in England, found that both the timing and frequency of introducing a vegetable to a baby appear to be integral to achieving success in the child developing a taste for that particular item.1 The findings showed that when babies are fed veggies soon after solid foods are being introduced around the age of six months old, they tend to be eaten more readily over time. The subjects were 332 young children from the United Kingdom, France, and Denmark. All were between the ages of six months and 38 months old.

The researchers offered pureed artichoke to the participants five to 10 separate times. Each serving was at least 100 grams. There were three variations used for the experiment: an unadulterated artichoke puree, an artichoke puree sweetened with sugar, and an artichoke puree mixed with vegetable oil for "added energy." While the research was somewhat limited because only one type of food was considered, artichoke was probably a reasonable choice because it is relatively unfamiliar to many young children.

Interestingly, the results showed that adding sugar to achieve a sweeter taste--which many people swear by in the belief that hiding the flavor of vegetables is the only way to get a child to eat them--made no difference. The quantities consumed of the sweetened and plain versions of the artichoke puree were very similar over time, which means the added sugar is not necessary to get the kids to eat this food. And we know there is certainly no benefit in promoting extra sugar intake at any age.

Not surprisingly, the babies involved in the study tended to eat more of the artichoke puree than did the toddlers. However, with each additional exposure they were given, even the most finicky little ones managed to eat a slightly larger amount--if it was introduced early enough. The cutoff age appears to be at approximately 24 months old. As they enter the terrible twos, many children become less willing to try new foods and may even rebuff attempts to get them to eat some of the foods they had consumed just a few months previously.

The findings determined that the participants fell into one of four broad categories of eating habits. The majority of them, 40 percent, were deemed "learners," who gradually consumed more artichoke with each try. Another 21 percent of the subjects were known as the "plate-cleaners," since they consistently devoured at least 75 percent of the food provided. The smallest grouping, made up of 16 percent of the kids, were referred to as "non-eaters" because even after the fifth serving of the artichoke puree, they still consumed only 10 grams or less. Finally, those who did not maintain a set eating pattern throughout the study were termed "others," and these children represented the remaining 23 percent. This breakdown provided key information, since the non-eaters were mainly the older kids in the trial, suggesting they might have missed the crucial window on accepting new food.

The bottom line is that you really can't go wrong by introducing a variety of vegetables as soon as your child is safely eating solid foods. Fruits are wonderful as well, but since they are naturally sweeter, more children might readily accept them. So it would appear that the trick is to keep trying with a range of vegetables repeatedly to allow a taste for them to develop. And if your child is older and rejecting all vegetables unconditionally, stick with the program anyway and model good nutrition because the alternative is often filling up on junk food. A 2013 study at the University of California, Los Angeles found that 60 percent of children between the ages of two and five had at least one fast food meal the previous week.2 If they are not eating healthy stuff like vegetables, chances are your kids will be finding lots of foods high in fat, sugar, and calories to consume instead, which will only set them up for a future of excess weight and increased risk of disease.

Note: the research specifically used words like "introduce" and "offer." It did not say "force" or "insist." Insisting that a child eat "all" of certain food on their plate or offering bribes such as "no dessert until you finish your veggies" actually produces the opposite effect. It conditions the child to view the food in question as unpleasant and requiring punishment or a bribe to be eaten. Again, the trick is to regularly and consistently offer and introduce the veggies at an early age so that the child becomes familiar with them. And that applies to the terrible twos. If a child refuses to eat healthy foods that they previously ate up until that point, go with it. If you try and force the issue, you merely build up hostility to the food in question. Just keep offering the food. Eventually, the twos pass and your child will stop saying "no" simply because they love the sound of the word.

  • 1. "'Often and early' gives children a taste for vegetables." Science Daily. 30 May 2014. Accessed 9 June 2014. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140530190550.htm
  • 2. Driscoll, Gwen. "Unhappy meals? Majority of very young children in California eat fast food at least once a week." UCLA Newsroom. 25 November 2013. Accessed 11 June 2014. http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/unhappy-meals-majority-of-very-249342

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