Image: Makes and Takes 2012
You probably know that vegetables are an important part of well rounded, healthy diet. You have probably been told to “eat your veggies” as a child, and you’re probably now saying the same thing to your own children too. Veggies pack a lot of goodness that our bodies need to keep us healthy and prevent disease. There is also plenty of evidence indicating a protective benefit of consuming a variety of vegetables i.e. eating the rainbow, to consume a whole spectrum of nutrients.
But one thing that feels almost universal is that kids hate vegetables, and it actually is. Disliking vegetables is a developmentally ‘typical’ stage almost all children experience.
Which brings us to question, why?
Food neophobia plays a big role in this, especially for young children under the age of six years old.
Food neophobia is an inherent trait that leads to the rejection of foods that are ‘unknown’, and is influenced by the look, colour, or expectations of a food. From an evolutionary perspective, food neophobia can protect a child from consuming potentially dangerous foods. It is a natural stage of development.
As children become more familiar with food in general, these ‘neophobic tendencies’ gradually decrease over time. However, this takes longer for foods like vegetables.
Firstly, vegetables don’t typically have those flavours children love. Bitter flavours are the opposite of sweet and are often innately rejected by infants and children. And guess what? Foods such as vegetable are usually bitter.
Secondly, vegetables have funny textures! Think of a bumpy broccoli floret, or the feeling of peas when bite down on them or perhaps the leafy texture of lettuce and spinach. Infants and young children take a long time to learn to manage different textures, let alone enjoy these textures.
Finally, we even have studies to indicate that bite effort (how hard a food is to bite and chew) is correlated to how much we eat. Children are less likely to eat large amounts of vegetables due to effort it takes to actually eat them.
So, what can we do to set children up for success to enjoy vegetables, or any new food in general? One simple strategy is repeated exposure. This means continuing to offer a new food or vegetable, regularly at mealtimes (without pressuring your child to eat). Did you know that children may need up to 20 tries of a new food, including vegetables, before they learn to enjoy it?
So, the next time you offer your child vegetables at a meal, and that plate comes back with the veggies intact, remind yourself that this was yet another opportunity you gave your children to learn to enjoy a new food.
Some children may continue to have challenges around feeding beyond what we may deem developmentally ‘typical’. If you have concerns about your child’s eating behaviours, they may benefit from feeding therapy. Please get in touch with the Lively Eaters team if you would like to find out more.
Dr. Shabnam Kashef