Don’t force them, don’t blackmail them, just give them choice. It sounds simple enough, but a new scientific study shows that giving children the opportunity to choose the vegetable they want to eat can help them incorporate that food into their diet.
Every mealtime, it’s the same story: they pull a face, they cross their arms, and they keep their mouth firmly shut. Whether it’s cauliflower, turnip or green beans, those vegetables aren’t going in.
For many years, science has been investigating how to get young children to eat and even like vegetables. In 2005, France’s INRA, CNRS and Université de Bourgogne — home to the specialist Center for Taste and Feeding Behavior (CSGA) — launched a vast study evaluating the period during which kids develop their food preferences, between weaning and the age of two. Among the many findings was the idea that by introducing a vegetable at five months of age, a baby was more likely to enjoy it than at six months.
This finding was all the more interesting in that it did not hold true for other food categories, such as grains or fish. Furthermore, in their OPALINE study, the scientists report that the greater the variety of foods introduced at the start of weaning, the more positive children’s subsequent reaction to these foods would be.
The message was clear: “children who enjoyed vegetables the most at the start of dietary diversification were also those who enjoyed them the most at later ages, up to 24 months.”
But what about when kids are older than two, when they know how to sit at the table, grasp their fork and make themselves understood? The OPALINE study reported that “coercive strategies to get children to taste food are associated with a lower appreciation of vegetables” — in other words, there’s no point in forcing your kid to eat a radish.
However, research from the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, the results of which were recently published in the journal, Appetite, suggests that giving children the opportunity to choose the vegetable they want to eat helps them to accept it better.
This concerns a four-to-five-year-old child being encouraged to try an unfamiliar vegetable. The little guinea pigs who took part in this experiment were offered three cups containing raw celeriac. Little did they know that all the cups contained exactly the same thing. During the analysis, some of the children were allowed to choose which one they wanted to eat, while the researchers instructed the others to eat the contents of a given cup.
“The results of this study imply that choice is an important factor in promoting unfamiliar vegetable intake in young children,” the researchers write. The same conclusion was reached in 2013 with regard to vegetable consumption in the school canteen, according to scientists at the University of Granada.
In the UK, researchers have found another way to get children to eat vegetables. This time, they replaced the characters of regular storybooks with… an eggplant, a cauliflower and a carrot! Digital books were developed at the beginning of the year, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Reading. Available via the See & Eat platform, they focus on each product to tell the story of how it is grown and how it is prepared in the kitchen, just like you might read about Peppa Pig learning to ride a bike or taking a bath.
For its part, France’s interprofessional organization for fresh fruit and vegetables (Interfel) opted for a children’s podcast about “the secret life of fruit and vegetables,” with each episode presenting a vegetable and explaining why it grows in winter or summer.
These approaches all have a potential role to play in the broader context of childhood obesity. According to the World Health Organization, 29% of children aged 7 to 9 in Europe are overweight or obese. Moreover, only 34% of them eat vegetables every day.