How can I get my child to eat vegetables? (And other questions from parents tackling fussy eating)
I should say from the start that this is not an article where you’ll find recipes about ‘hidden vegetables’. It’s an article about what parents really mean when they ask, ‘how can I get my child to eat vegetables?’.
We don’t really want our child to grow into an adult human who will only eat vegetables blended to oblivion and disguised as something else. What we really want is for them to be able to go out into the world and enjoy eating most things off a menu or at a friend’s house – and to keep themselves healthy in the process.
The more we learn about food, the more evidence we seem to find that plants are pretty wonderful for our health. We’re also told that the vast majority of us could do with eating more of them – including our children. In other words, vegetables have become shorthand for healthy eating and the pressure that goes with it.
Which is why, as good and loving parents, we want our children to eat more veg. If you have a baby who’s weaning enthusiastically, this may not feel like a problem. But, statistically speaking, it’s likely that many of you will have babies who turn from enthusiastic eaters of most things into vegetable-refusing toddlers. As I’m sure you’ve heard – the fussy toddler stage is perfectly normal and can be explained by developmental changes.
Why then do some children emerge from fussy toddlers into enthusiastic omnivores, while others stay picky – particularly when it comes to eating veg?
This post, the first in a series of three about children’s fussy eating, takes a look at some of the evidence around how children’s food preferences are formed and what, if anything, parents can do to influence those preferences. This is one part of a complex puzzle that goes some way to answering, ‘how can I get my child to eat vegetables?’, as well as other questions like it.
Understanding babies’ taste preferences
Babies and children appear to be hard wired to prefer sweet and salty tastes. For example, on average, children have a ‘bliss point’ that’s not far off double that of most adults when it comes to sweetness. This served us well in the past, guiding fast-growing babies towards energy-dense, mineral-rich foods. But in our modern food environment, where sweet and salty foods are cheap and abundant, our children are more vulnerable to developing narrow and potentially unhealthy palettes. In the US, foods containing added sugar appear in most children’s diets from around age one. From the age of two, a child in the US is more likely, on average, to eat a food with added sugar than they are to eat a fruit or vegetable on any given day. It isn’t until the teenage years that adult taste preferences start to form.
Variety really is the spice of life
Evidence shows that our children are being exposed to a variety of tastes in amniotic fluid and breast milk –garlic, carrot, anise, vanilla and mint have all been detected.
Randomised control trials with mothers who consumed carrot juice during pregnancy and lactation had babies who made fewer faces of distaste when trying carrot during weaning, and who ate more carrot overall than babies of non-carrot eating mothers. There’s evidence to suggest this effect may be long-lasting. A similar trial involving garlic followed up with its participants and found those babies who were exposed to garlic nine years earlier, were still significantly more likely to accept garlic than the control group with non-garlic eating mothers.
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, eating a varied and flavourful diet could help prime your baby for wide and varied food acceptance.
This wide and varied theme continues into weaning and beyond. Research indicates that the more flavours and aromatics (i.e. herbs and spices) babies experience between four and 18 months (the key period of receptivity), the more likely they are to accept complex flavours later on. And other studies show how babies who were offered a greater variety of fruit and vegetables went on to be more accepting of new fruits, vegetables, and other foods more generally. There is one exception to this finding. Commercially prepared baby foods, when tested in research trials, do not appear to translate into acceptance of homemade versions of the same food.
But as well as offering variety, there is one other key behaviour that seems to result in more foods being accepted: repetition.
The power of repetition
Children are naturally (and wisely) often cautious of new foods. For babies, it seems to take between six to ten tastes for them to get used to a food and fully accept it. For toddlers and older children, it can take a lot longer.
It’s certainly a great idea to let your child experience a new food fully – handling it, smelling it (and if they’re old enough, helping to prepare it). This can all contribute to them feeling more confident about putting the food into their mouth. But it’s repeated tastes that really matter when it comes to food acceptance. This means we don’t need to focus on chewing or swallowing when we’re allowing a child to try new foods. And it never translates into forcing a child to eat – it’s just a matter of giving them the chance to taste.
And by doing this, by giving our children repeated chances to taste foods – even if they don’t seem very enthusiastic all the time – we are helping them to learn. Specifically, we are helping them to learn to like what they eat.
It becomes less surprising to think that this learning process might take a while, if we stop to think about how much information a child is having to process when getting used to new food. By repeatedly offering foods to a child, we’re giving their nervous system the opportunity it needs to be able to recognise information about those foods and then produce adaptive behaviours until they learn it’s okay to eat.
There’s a strong consensus of opinion on this amongst researchers and paediatric dieticians: the more a child is exposed to a food, the more likely they are – eventually – to accept it.
As parents, we might know about the importance of repeatedly offering our child a food they may previously have rejected, but do we actually do it?
Research from 2002 asking just this question found that the majority of parents (75%) were unlikely to re-offer a food to their baby or toddler once it had been rejected. A similar survey from 2018 showed some change, but again revealed the extent to which parents find ‘repeated exposure’ a challenge.
Why it can be so hard for parents to repeatedly offer vegetables
Most of us report that we want our children to eat, and we want them to like what they eat. So if our children don’t seem to like a food the first couple of times they try it, we can be heavily dissuaded from offering it again. Consider this pros and cons list of offering a previously disliked food:
Reasons to repeat
The experts tell me I should
My child might have more chance of eventually liking the food
My child might have more chance of eventually liking a wide variety of foods
My child might be able to grow up eating healthily
Reasons not to repeat
My child will cry if I offer this again
I’m concerned my child won’t eat enough if they don’t like it
I don’t have the time/money/energy to make something different if they don’t like this
If I mix it with something else they might like it better
I should be giving my child healthy food
If I give them a break before trying it again their taste buds may have changed
Mealtime could go on forever if they’re not keen on it
I haven’t got the energy to make this food seem like fun/distract them from something they’re not enjoying
I hate wasting food
It’s so disheartening whey they reject it
I’m a bad parent if I don’t give my child food they like
I’m not surprised they don’t like vegetables – I don’t either!
To me there are at least three striking things about this list.
The number of ‘reasons not to repeat’ far outweigh the ‘reasons to repeat’.
The ‘reasons to repeat’ all have possible payoffs in the future, while the ‘reasons not to repeat’ largely offer fairly concrete payoffs in the here and now.
The ‘reasons not to repeat’ tend to speak to our own evidence, experiences, and self-beliefs, while the ‘reasons to repeat’ tend to speak to things we know in theory we should be doing.
All this adds up to create a misalignment between our desired ultimate outcome – for our child to eat vegetables – and our desired immediate outcome – for our child to eat and enjoy the next meal we put in front of them. And it’s often here where a slow slide into serving only what our children will accept in the moment, can begin to take hold.
Before we know it, less and less variety is offered, and repeated exposure becomes restricted to a narrow range of acceptable foods. And it can feel so much easier/safer/more enjoyable to leave it that way as our child grows older.
For most parents it’s not technically hard to repeatedly offer a variety of vegetables – most of us can buy, prepare and serve some vegetables. But it can be emotionally hard. And it’s harder for some than others.
Depending upon our own experiences of learning to eat and our own relationship with food, there can be a lot to unpack in terms of our expectations and beliefs around what it means to be a good parent when it comes to feeding our own children. Getting our children to eat vegetables just happens to be where all this complexity tends to show up most often.
So, how can I get my child to eat vegetables??
There’s really only one ‘top tip’, no matter what age your child: keep offering vegetables at mealtime as part of varied family meals. This may not mean your child always, or even ever, eats every kind of vegetable, but it seems to be the best we can do. Hiding vegetables may be no bad thing if you’re looking for an insurance policy from a nutritional standpoint, but there’s little to suggest it works as a springboard to wider food acceptance.
If you’re already coming up with a mental list of all the reasons why it’s just not possible for you to repeatedly offer a variety of vegetables to your child, there are ways of approaching how you offer those vegetables that might help – and I’ll be writing more about that next month. But in the meantime, if you’re able to bring some of those vegetables out of hiding, place them in plain sight in bowls in the centre of the table, and allow everyone to have some – but only if they want to - that’s not a bad place to start.
Where to go if you need more help
I can offer more support if you’re struggling with any of the issues raised in this article: eating healthily during pregnancy or while breastfeeding; weaning; feeding your toddler or child. So, if you think you’d benefit from one-on-one coaching support, or small group coaching sessions, please get in touch with me, Sarah, to book a free initial consultation.
Castle, J (2019) Try New Food. Nourished Child Press
Johnson, S (2020) Impact of Maternal Feeding Practices on Children's Early Food Acceptance - Where are the Leverage Points? University of Colorado. Paper given at the Eating in the Early Years E-Vent, September 2020
Mennella, J (2020) The Flavor World of Infants: Learning about Foods. Monell Chemical Senses Center. Paper given at the Eating in the Early Years E-Vent, September 2020
Sarah is a family health coach with a specialism in child feeding. She offers one-on-one coaching to parents who want to make different diet and lifestyle choices to support their family’s health. If you think Sarah might be able to help you find better ways to support your health or your family’s health, please get in touch and ask for a free initial consultation.