As you are probably aware, many small children do not enjoy eating vegetables. This is not an original observation — it is such a well-worn trope that the English language even uses “eat your vegetables” as a metaphor for all sorts of unrelated unpleasant-but-important tasks. But the reason this concept doesn’t go away is it’s something parents are forever struggling with. Luckily, researchers have some ideas.
An interesting article in the Salt, NPR’s food blog, runs down some of the research on this subject. The basic problem underlying a lot of parent-child misery on this front, explains Sujata Gupta, is that researchers believe “the surest way to get kids to eat a given veggie, or any food for that matter, is to offer it a lot, or somewhere in the window of 8–15 times.” Most parents don’t have that sort of patience — they can only handle so many peas being spit out onto the floor.
But Gupta’s article has two really helpful suggestions to help expose kids to veggies. The first comes from Lucy Cooke, a University College London psychologist:
In a series of carefully controlled studies, conducted both at schools and within the home, Cooke found that when children were offered a pea-sized amount of a given veggie in exchange for a sticker reward, they ate more of that veggie three months later – sans reward – than children who had merely received praise. Those studies contained some crucial tenets: Portion sizes were small, children who chose not to eat the veggie didn’t receive a sticker but weren’t criticized, either, and the veggies were offered outside of stress-driven mealtimes. Cooke has now packaged the basics of her program into a program called Tiny Tastes.
That not-at-mealtime thing seems important, especially if you and your kid already have a history of vegetable skirmishes at the dinner table. The other tip has to do with the tendency of some parents to focus too much on their kids’ impression of the taste of vegetables, as compared to other aspects of the sensory experience. Helen Coulthard, a developmental health psychologist at De Montfort University in the U.K., explained to Gupta that it’s important to let kids play around with vegetables in other ways to get familiar with them. “Coulthard and others say that just letting kids touch, tear, and smush their vegetables so that they can imagine what they might feel like inside their mouths will eventually lead to tasting,” explains Gupta. The key is to take away the mystery and make the food in question familiar, as a recent study by Coulthard shows.
What’s nice about both pieces of advice is they are not particularly difficult to try: Cooke’s method seems straightforward enough, and letting your kid play with some food is as easy as, well, letting your kid play with some food. It’s unlikely these tips will work for all parents and kids, of course, but they’re too easy not to try.