If your floor is regularly covered in your toddler’s broccoli at dinner time, or you’ve lost the lunch box wars, this won’t surprise you. But you might be surprised by the simple reasons why children don't tend to like vegetables.
Generally, children don’t like them because they are an acquired taste.This means that just expecting them to like vegetables, despite volumes of evidence to the contrary, leads to frustration for kids and parents alike.
Why the yuck factor?
The most common reasons many children don’t like vegetables are:
- The texture and the way they feel in their mouths.
- The bitter taste of many vegetables.
- They are neophobic, meaning they fear new foods.
How do you get your child to love vegetables?
Once we know and accept kids don’t naturally like vegetables, it opens the door to trying behavioural approaches to help children acquire a taste for them. A love of vegetables is important because adequate consumption is linked to lifelong good health outcomes.
Our researchers and partners have spent five years investigating how we can help children cultivate a love of vegetables through behavioural interventions.
We’ve used the research to create the VegKIT program[Link will open in a new window]. The approach moves away from the old and (let’s face it) less successful tactics, such as hiding veg and bribing kids to eat them.
Helping children learn to acquire the taste for vegetables can feel costly, both in time and at the supermarket checkout. So, we designed the VegKIT program for early education and care (ECEC) and schools to help ease that load.
We've picked the top five evidence-based tips from the program that you can implement at home.
Tip 1: Liking vegetables needs to be taught and learned
We can encourage children’s interest in vegetables through early repeated exposure to many kinds of vegetables.
Nurturing that lifelong love of vegetables means we need to inspire investigation and curiosity. Exploring tastes and textures of different varieties of vegetables helps children to tolerate and learn to enjoy their tastes, textures and flavours.
It can take 10 or more times trying a new vegetable before a child learns to like it. So, while it may feel counterintuitive, it makes sense to keep patiently offering a vegetable even if it has been rejected before.
The good news for your budget is that it doesn’t need to be costly. You only need to offer a small portion each time to build an acceptance of that vegetable. And it can be whatever is on special that week.
Given introduction and exposure is about a small taste initially, you don’t need to buy large quantities and see it wasted. A broccoli floret or a slice of carrot the size of a 10-cent piece is enough for exposure.
We designed a sensory adventure kit, Taste and Learn for Early Years[Link will open in a new window], to help make the exploration of different vegetables a more positive experience.
Tip 2: Start early
Our food preferences are well established in early childhood, so it pays to start early.
It's possible to nurture an appreciation for vegetables from the first solid meals. Introducing a child to vegetables before fruit makes it more likely that they will like vegetables later in life. For example, introducing mashed carrots and pumpkin before mashed pears and bananas.
The earlier you start exploring different vegetables with children, the better. But implementing these tactics at any point during childhood can deliver positive results. We found primary school age children are receptive to learning about vegetables and their unique flavours and textures.
Tip 3: Make it fun and positive
We found that many adults have a poor understanding of children’s tolerance for vegetables.
Though children may not initially be receptive to vegetables, it doesn’t mean they will always reject them. If we make the introduction to, and exploration of, vegetables fun, the outcomes will be better.
However, being patient and avoiding reacting negatively to refusal can be hard. VegKIT trained ECEC staff to react in a neutral way. Positive reinforcement is a great way to encourage a child, so things like a sticker chart recording a tasting have been shown to help.
We can also reinforce a love of vegetables by modelling eating them. Even if you didn’t learn to love vegetables as a child, it helps to walk the talk.
Tip 4: Make vegetables available as snacks and at lunch
If we make the introduction to new vegetables fun and positive, and make vegetables available often, children are more likely to choose to eat them.
Research shows most children only eat vegetables in their evening meal. A good way to increase vegetable consumption to meet the daily recommended amount is to provide them as snacks and include them with morning and lunchtime meals.
This makes sure vegetables are available throughout the day and as often as possible. VegKIT research found that vegetables in lunchtime canteen bento boxes was very popular.
Tip 5: It takes a village
Our research identified that it actually takes a village to best help children learn to love vegetables.
We found that getting a long day care centre[Link will open in a new window], early learning centre or school[Link will open in a new window] involved in cultivating a love of vegetables makes a significant impact on a child’s intake.
In one study, vegetable sales in school canteens increased by 75% after schools got involved in the VegKIT program.
And if ECEC and schools are all involved, children have the opportunity to learn to like vegetables independent of how they're offered in the home and the home food budget.
If you like the sound of the program, you can share it with your child's ECEC or school. All the tools and resources are available online for free.
This research project has been funded by Hort Innovation, the grower-owned research and development corporation for Australian horticulture.