Learning to love vegetables!
We all know that it’s a good idea for young children to eat plenty of vegetables – not only are they important for the essential vitamins, minerals and fibre they contain, but trying a wide range of types can get children used to different tastes and textures. Healthy eating habits learned early on can track into later life and so the pre-school years are a really important window of opportunity for children to learn to love (or at least like!) vegetables.
So why is it so difficult to get young children eating vegetables?
Vegetables can be quite bitter; particularly some green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale or cabbage. Young children are very sensitive to bitter flavours and prefer sweeter foods. This means that they might be ok eating some sweet and tasty fruit but push their vegetables to one side, or even onto the floor! Just eating fruit can mean that kids could miss out on some of the nutrients found in higher amounts in vegetables, as well as the opportunity to enjoy the varied dishes where vegetables are found – so it’s important that they have a variety of both in their diet.
Food ‘neophobia’ – the fear of new things - is also a problem between the ages of 2 and 6 years. Neophobia is common at this stage in life and simply means that a child will usually turn their nose up at a new food. This can be a key reason young children tend to say no the first time you try to introduce something they are not used to, but it does not mean they won’t learn to like it.
The See & Eat project is funded by EIT Food and led by the University of Reading, with partners including the British Nutrition Foundation. The goal of the project is to encourage children to eat more vegetables by familiarising them with images that show the veggies growing, being picked, sold in store and then being cooked and eaten.
So, children do not like bitter tastes in their vegetables and they also do not want to try new things… This can lead to stressful situations at dinnertime for both parent and child. What can parents do about this?
There are many ways that parents often use to try and get their kids to eat vegetables, but some are more effective than others. Coercion or force-feeding strategies, for example, can make both child and parent stressed and lead the child to like the vegetable even less! Similarly, using treat foods as a reward also seems to make children like the vegetable even less. Not only that, but they tend to like the less healthy reward food even more afterwards.
Hiding vegetables in foods can be a way to get children to eat vegetables with less fuss, as they do not notice them when eating. The problem is that because the child does not see the vegetables, they do not learn to like them on their own and may still reject them later on.
So, how can parents ensure that their fussy young children eat their vegetables?
Studies have shown that the best way to get young children to eat foods is through repetition. Becoming more familiar with a food can help children to accept it. The problem is that research has also found that it can take between 8 and 15 times being given a food before it is accepted. As many parents will be aware, between 8 and 15 rejections of a vegetable also means between 8 and 15 stressful mealtimes or snacks, as well as wasted food and hungry kids.
Is there a way that could reduce the number of times a food has to be introduced and help young children to understand and accept vegetables as part of their daily diet?
The See & Eat project is funded by EIT Food and led by the University of Reading, with partners including the British Nutrition Foundation. The goal of the project is to encourage children to eat more vegetables by familiarising them with images that show the veggies growing, being picked, sold in store and then being cooked and eaten. The theory is that this approach can help children become more familiar with vegetables and therefore accept them more readily.
The research team has already published a study using physical books, which showed promising results. They found that the children who were shown the books became more familiar with the vegetables and were also more likely to enjoy them! Books with fruit were also tested – but in these cases the researchers saw no difference between the groups with and without books. This might be because fruits tend to be sweeter, and kids are more likely to enjoy them than their less sweet vegetable counterparts.
The See & Eat project has now produced a range of eBooks that parents can use to introduce vegetables to their children. These books can be freely downloaded on phones or tablets. Each eBook has a set of images and accompanying text that show the journey of a vegetable ‘from farm to fork’. This allows children to not only see the vegetable in its raw form, but to have a basic understanding of how it is grown and what it looks like in meals and snacks.
The eBooks are also customisable – allowing parents to edit the text or add their own images. This can help parents to personalise the books in a way that suits them and their children’s learning and adds more flexibility than a physical book would have.
For more information on See & Eat, or to download the resources yourself, click here to be taken to the See & Eat website.
We have produced a short leaflet with tips about encouraging young children to eat vegetables that you can download below, and you can find loads more free activities and information on the See and Eat website www.seeandeat.org
This work has been funded by EIT Food, the innovation community on Food of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the EU, under the Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.
The talk below details why nutrition matters so much in the first few years of life, and how the nutrients consumed and eating patterns developed can lead to different health outcomes in later years.
Nutrition in the early years matters
Helena Gibson-Moore, British Nutrition Foundation
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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any personal advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.