As a kid, we all at some point have turned our nose up at some food and to hazard a guess it was most likely a poor, innocent vegetable. What might surprise you now is how much you love these foods now as an adult.
The Physical Needs of Children:
Children need lots of energy, way more than adults and instinctively kids will turn to foods that provide them with lots of energy. Vegetables don’t offer as much energy as the other food groups especially in the form of glucose, the body’s preferred energy source. Some vegetables contain so much indigestible fibre that they need more energy to digest than they offer in return. So physically it doesn’t make sense for kids to eat foods that don’t provide them with energy.
Another biological factor is their taste and what taste implies. Green and cruciferous vegetables have a slightly bitter taste. Children taste this bitter taste more strongly than adults and also have a greater reason to avoid it.
In nature, bitterness is a sign of poison and potential toxicity. The bitter compounds in vegetables are toxic in large amounts, but are not concentrated enough to harm us. The trace amounts of these compounds found in vegetables are actually beneficial. As adults have learned from experience and observation, “eating veggies never killed anyone”.
Children operate on instinct and thus it makes sense for children to be more in tune with their natural bodies as they have less capacity for detoxification.
What is the solution?
Reduce the bitterness by adjusting preparation methods. Use of caramelisation, pickling, braising and sautéing have been found to reduce bitterness in vegetables. Combining vegetables with something sweet, salty and fatty will also help as will stir-frying in some coconut fat and sprinkling cheese over broccoli, for example.
Time is of the essence:
Adults have had the time to discover that vegetables do not kill us. We have also built up tolerance to their bitter taste through repeated exposure. In nature, when an animal is exposed to a potential new food source, they test its safety by trying a little bit, then allowing their body to fully process and digest it. If there are no ill-effects, they will retry it and repeat this process up to 10 to 15 times. Once they are confident the food is safe they will add it to their diet. It is important that we do not rush this exposure process.
Some appropriate ways to make vegetables as familiar as possible:
Children are more likely to eat vegetables paired with a familiar dip such as home-made hummus, yoghurt based dips, avocado, peanut butter, cheese sauce.
The final common reason why children don’t like vegetables is due to paired associative learning. This is a psychological concept that involves associating a stimulus with a specific response:
- Children tend to associate processed high fat and sugary foods with positive memories such as parties and holidays, celebrations and rewards.
- They tend to associate vegetables with less positive memories like nagging parents and unpleasant meal times when they are forced to eat the green stuff. Luckily as we grow up we tend to change association for the better.
- Vegetables are often associated with health and fitness and success as adults.
So now what?
We will never get away from the associated reality of occasion/celebration and holiday foods, but we can control the negative associations we create around the dear vegetable.
Offering vegetables alone when kids are hungry means they will be more likely to eat them or at least try them.
While some gentle, firm pressure on kids to eat vegetables might be acceptable, it’s best to avoid nagging.
Most of all, if kids often see others (you) eating and loving vegetables, they will not have much reason to form a negative association with them.
Kath Megaw (BSc Dietetics Hons, Diploma Paediatric Dietetics) holds four medical qualifications including a paediatric dietetic qualification from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University in Balitmore, USA. She has been published in the Epilepsia journal on the use of the paediatric ketogenic diet in third-world settings and frequently speaks to groups of both professionals and parents on infant and childhood nutrition. Kath is the author of Real Food, Healthy, Happy Children (Quivertree Publications), the co-author of Feeding Sense (Metz press), The Low Carb Solution for Diabetics (Quivertree Publications),as well as co-author of Weaning Sense and Allergy Sense (Quivertree Publications). Kath has been in private practice for over 18 years and is the founder of Nutripaeds, a paediatric dietetic practice.