We all know that vegetables are an essential part of a healthy diet, but getting children to eat vegetables, or enough of them is where things get challenging for many parents. Most parents I meet start off with the best intentions, but as hard as we try, getting vegetables into children is not always as easy at it sounds and more often than not, leaves parents feeling frustrated and disheartened at the dinner table. Whether it’s picking out tiny chunks of carrots from a spaghetti bolognese or completely refusing to even touch anything green, there is a broad spectrum of fussy eating and some children will be more difficult than others to convince.
Childhood Vegetable Intake in Australia
The latest nationwide studies show that in 2014-2015 only 5% of children ate the recommended serves of vegetables per day. Aside from the obvious lack of vegetables for most children (and therefore essential nutrients), what is concerning about this data is that this period of childhood is a time in which lifelong healthy eating behaviours can be developed and carried through to adulthood.
To set a child up for a healthy and happy life, it is really important that parents prioritise the intake of vegetables to create positive habits to set their child up for a happy and healthy life.
So how many vegetables should your child be consuming? The current Australian dietary guidelines from the National Health and Medical Research Council recommend the following intakes by age:
1-2 years should have 2-3 serves of vegetables each day
2-3 years should have 2½ serves of vegetables each day
3-12 years should have 4½ serves of vegetables each day
Food Neophobia vs Likes and Dislikes
Food neophobia is the term used to describe the initial rejection of foods, and this usually peaks for most children around age 2-3 years. The extent to which a child will reject or accept new food varies significantly between children with some children reporting higher levels of food neophobia than others, and multiple factors can determine this.
Whereas food aversions or ‘liking’ refers to the tendency to associate either positive or negative consequences of eating the food with the food itself. Learnt associations may be conscious or unconscious and have been shown to be persistent. The evidence has shown that both neophobia and aversions to food can be improved in children through a variety of factors, which all have one thing in common - consistency.
Here are my recommendations to reduce and overcome food neophobia and aversions to help you increase your child’s vegetable intake:
Early repeated exposure to a variety of flavours can lead to greater acceptance of new foods in later life. Introduce your baby to as many different vegetables when you start weaning. If a child rejects a food initially, don’t give up! Try to mix that food in with another food, gradually increasing the intensity of the flavour they did not like, or try attempting to give similar tasting foods. Additionally, acquiring a liking for a certain food tends to take longer than acquiring disliking for a certain food, so repeated positive exposures are required to enhance the liking of a food.
We have an innate preference for sweet-tasting foods and an aversion to bitter-tasting foods, while preferences for fatty, salty and sour foods are likely to be learned. While a child is starting solids, introduce more bitter foods such as green vegetables before fruits, and continuously provide vegetables throughout the weaning process.
Introduction to a variety of textures in these early months also has the potential to enhance acceptance of different textures in later life, so when safe to do so, try chunky textures, raw foods and softer foods. For example, if a child doesn’t like blended zucchini, they try and offer a cooked piece.
To increase the acceptability of a new food, it should be introduced in a familiar environment. Studies have found that combining the introduction of a new food in a new situation increases reluctance to approach and eat a new food.
Several studies have shown that a child who does not like a vegetable will eat more of it and report they like it more if they are eating with children who like that vegetable. Studies have also shown that children more readily put food into their mouth if they see their mother doing so compared with seeing a stranger eating it. So your child must see you and the rest of the family engaging in healthy eating behaviours.
Avoid pressuring your child to eat and using food as a reward. The pressure to eat may reduce the intake of the food item the child is pressured to consume more of. Additionally, the common use of phrases such as ‘not until you have finished all your veggies’ or ‘no dessert until you have eaten everything on your plate’ have been shown to decrease the liking of the food the parents are trying to get their child to finish.
Let your child regulate their appetite. Children can eat to satisfy their hunger. If an infant stops eating: they are full. If an infant continues eating: they are hungry. You provide the food, the child decides how much they eat.
Consider the mealtime environment. Aside from the food content of a meal, other factors such as who the food is eaten with, how eating is encouraged/discouraged, the level of stress or conflict during eating, and interruptions during eating such as screen time have all been shown to influence children’s food habits and food intake. So turn off the TV, put phones on silent and always eat at the dinner table.
Two Kid-Approved Recipes with Hidden Vegetables
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2019). Australia's Health 2018. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/australias-health-2018/contents/indicators-of-australias-health/fruit-and-vegetable-intake
Birch, L., Gunder, L., Grimm-Thomas K., & Laing, D. (1998). Infants' Consumption of a New Food Enhances Acceptance of Similar Foods. Appetite, 30(3), 283-295. doi: 10.1006/appe.1997.0146
Chao, H. (2018). Association of Picky Eating with Growth, Nutritional Status, Development, Physical Activity, and Health in Preschool Children. Frontiers In Pediatrics, 6. doi: 10.3389/fped.2018.00022
Cooke, L., Wardle, J., & Gibson, E. (2003). Relationship between parental report of food neophobia and everyday food consumption in 2–6-year-old children. Appetite, 41(2), 205-206. doi: 10.1016/s0195-6663(03)00048-5
Galloway, A., Fiorito, L., Francis, L., & Birch, L. (2006). ‘Finish your soup’: Counterproductive effects of pressuring children to eat on intake and affect. Appetite, 46(3), 318-323. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2006.01.019
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