If you are wondering if your efforts to teach your kids learn to enjoy vegetables are ever going to pay off, here is some good news from a study published in Appetite last month. A group of Dutch scientists wanted to see whether eating vegetables soups with added fat and sugar will help children learn to like these vegetables more compared to vegetables prepared without added fat or sugar.
During the experiment, a group of toddlers (2 to 4 years of age) enrolled in a daycare was served a vegetable soup as a starter before lunch 2 times a week for 7 weeks.
Half of the children ate spinach soup with added fat and sugar and endive soup without added fat and sugar. The other half got the opposite combination: endive soup with added fat and sugar and spinach soup without fat or sugar.
The soup was served in small amounts (about half a cup), in small bowls and on special placements. The researchers measured how much of the soup each child ate every time it was served.
The vegetables used in the experiment were not a random choice. Neither spinach nor endive is a popular vegetable with Dutch children because of their green color and somewhat bitter taste.
Immediately after the 7 week experiment children seemed to prefer the vegetable flavor that was paired with higher energy from added fat and sugar. But after 2 and 6 months these flavor enhancers did not seem to play a big role in the children’s preferences.
Great news: ALL children ate more of ALL the soups by the end of the 7 weeks and continued to do so at both 2 and 6 months’ follow-ups.
Take away message:
Expose, expose, expose. Kids learn to enjoy food that is common in their environment. They need many opportunities to see, smell and taste a new food while learning to like it. Each time we cook something else for them instead, we take away this learning opportunity.
Boost the flavor to the vegetables you prepare by seasoning them well. This may help to reduce their natural bitterness and make them taste better. Although the above experiment showed only weak evidence that adding more flavor from fat and sugar helps kids learn to like veggies faster, we know that kids care about flavor!
Serve vegetables as a starter before lunch or dinner, when children are at their hungriest. From my own experience, vegetables served as an afterschool snack always fly off the kids plates because they are starving. For more ideas, read 10 ways to serve your kids veggies during the day.
Make vegetables look special. Serve them in small amounts in small bowls or plates and maybe even using a special placement and silverware. Put a special sticker on a container with cut up veggies before packing it in a lunchbox or draw a funny face on a clementine.
Make a puree vegetable soup. New vegetables may look less scary in a familiar pureed form and are much easier to chew and swallow. Here is a simple recipe that my kids love. You can even serve it in a pretty teacup for your children to drink it without even picking up a spoon. Now this is an efficient way to up someone’s veggie quota!
Eat together. The researchers suggested that all kids accepted and enjoyed the soup because they were eating it as a group. When serving a new food at home, make your child feel more secure by joining him at a table. And make use of the positive peer pressure by inviting his foodie friends over for dinner from time to time.
What was the longest it took your child to accept a new food?
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Victoire W.T. de Wild, Cees de Graaf, Gerry Jager. Effectiveness of flavour nutrient learning and mere exposure as mechanisms to increase toddler’s intake and preference for green vegetables. Appetite 64 (2013) 89–96.