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.
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.
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.
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.
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.