Food preferences are formed early on. They tend to be fixed from early childhood and continue into adulthood, making it critical to establish a healthful diet at a very young age. Vegetable intake is generally low among children, especially during the preschool years.
Repeated Exposure Is Important
Children prefer foods high in calories and appear to accept sweet tastes more than bitter tastes from birth. Since vegetables are lower in calories and bitter tasting, this might hinder vegetable intake among children. At the same time, repeated exposure of a new vegetable in early life is known to enhance intake of it.
A new study just released sought to understand the factors which predict different responses to repeated exposure to a new vegetable.
Who Was In This Study?
Three groups of children from Denmark, France and the UK, ages 4 months to 38 months.
The Essence of This Study
During the intervention period of the study, each child was given between 5 and 10 exposures to a new vegetable (artichoke puree) in one of three versions (basic, sweet or added energy). The child’s intake of basic artichoke puree was measured both before and after eating.
Overall, four distinct patterns of eating behavior during the exposure period were defined.
Most children were “learners” (40%) who increased vegetable intake over time.
21% consumed more than 75% of what was offered each time and were labelled “plate-clearers”.
16% were considered “non-eaters” eating less than 10 grams by the 5th exposure.
The remainder were classified as “others” (23%) since their pattern was highly variable.
Who Liked Vegetables More?
Children in the added energy group showed the smallest change in intake over time, compared to those in the basic or sweetened artichoke group.
According to the study, younger children consumed more of the new vegetable than older children.
Breastfed babies are more likely to accept new foods, including vegetables, compared to those who were not breastfed.
To Summarize, Here Are Tips For Getting Kids To Eat More Vegetables:
- Be Patient. Learning to like vegetables takes time. Age was a significant predictor of eating pattern, with older pre-school children more likely to eat less vegetables.
- Repeat, Repeat, Repeat exposure is the simplest and most convenient way to increase and improve vegetable intake in children. Offering the same food many times familiarizes a child with a food. Mothers often give up after only 5 exposures, yet current recommendations suggest at least 8–10 exposures.
- New vegetables are best introduced when children are young—during a period when new foods are readily accepted and before the fear of trying anything new begins.
- For older pre-school children who are fussy eaters, alternative strategies that focus on encouraging initial tastes of the target food might be needed.
- Alternative techniques such as the use of dips and sauces might be an effective way of encouraging these fussy eaters to try the target food.
- Although children prefer energy dense foods, adding oil directly to a new vegetable changes both taste and texture and might reduce liking.
- Offering food as a reward is known to be negative and something to avoid. However, there is evidence to suggest non-food tangible rewards (e.g.: stickers), or non-tangible rewards (e.g.: praise) can be highly effective in encouraging children to taste new or less liked foods. They benefit from the 'mere exposure' effect.
- Lead by example. Caregivers are extremely influential when it comes to food preferences. Even if you don’t like a certain vegetable(s), please don’t assume your child won’t like it either and certainly don’t let your kids know you don’t like it.
- Breastfeed Your Baby. Food preferences have been shown to occur while mom is pregnant and breastfeeding. For example, flavors experienced in amniotic fluid or breast milk might be sufficient to promote the intake of those specific or associated flavors later in life. Breastfed babies are more likely to accept novel foods including vegetables compared to those who were not breastfed.
If you know a picky eater, check out this blog fmore useful tips, “Coping with food allergies and picky eaters, part 2.”
I know it’s easy to get frustrated when your child refuses to eat the vegetables you purchased and worked hard to prepare. Don’t give up and consider the repeated exposure a gift to your child. If your persistence eventually teaches your child to like vegetables, s/he will thank you later in life when s/he’s healthy.
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods
1. Caton, Samantha et al. Learning to Eat Vegetables in Early Life: The Role of Timing, Age and Individual Eating Traits. May 30, 2014.