Getting a child to eat vegetables is a universal war eventually fought by most parents at meal time. While plenty of advice is handed out about disguising or renaming food to turn adversary into ally, research insists these methods may lose a few battles but ultimately win the war.
Make healthy foods familiar
Forget turning carrots into rocket ships or mushing bananas into pops, University College London psychologist Lucy Cooke explains if parents want to raise children to be adults with healthy diets, they need to make foreign foods familiar and this takes a lot of time and patience.
“Put simply, children like what they know and they eat what they like,” Dr Cooke writes in the study results. “From the very earliest age, children’s experiences with food influence both preferences and intake, and research suggests that the earlier and broader that experience, the healthier the child’s diet.”
Basically, Dr Cooke’s research has shown the best way to get children to eat vegetables of all varieties is to offer it to them a lot – at least eight to 15 times.
Small portion rewards
Offering sweet treats for every clean dinner plate is probably counter productive when trying to encourage healthy dietary choices. But, through her research, Dr Cooke found offering small portions and a non-food tangible reward outside of meal times proved effective in getting children to accept new foods.
Dr Cooke found that after consistently using stickers as a reward for eating a small mouthful of vegetables, the children who ate the small portion were more likely to eat more of that vegetable three months later. She has used her findings to form the program Tiny Tastes, aimed at helping parents avoid culinary conflicts.
Let kids play with their food
It may go against everything your parents ever taught you but it is not as crazy as it may seem. UK developmental health psychologist at De Montfort University Helen Coulthard conducted a study where children aged three to four were encouraged in a sensory play activity with real fruits and vegetables. The results showed children who were allowed to play with the fruits and vegetables presented to them were more likely to taste them.
I don’t want to brag but for all the parental hurdles I have been faced with, my son is actually a really good eater. I admit broccoli is still called trees in our house but I have never had to hide their true form and they are an absolute favourite. From the start I surrendered to the mess of meal time and clocked up every mouthful as a parenting win. I let my little man squish and squeeze pumpkin through his fingers, rub potato on his face and somehow get carrots and peas caught in his hair. As a bit of a neat freak myself, it took every bit of patience I could muster but today I am blessed with a boy who will try anything once, and again, if I leave a bit of time in between. His table manners are atrocious at times but I figure that’s a battle for another day.
While this has been my experience, I have seen my friends and family struggle with their fussy eaters and there is nothing more deflating and frustrating then preparing food for children only to have it all end up on the floor or still sitting on the plate. Walking through the supermarket, it can seem easier to just avoid the foods that were met with a grimace last night and go with the few foods you can get past your tiny dictator’s lips.
But I think, as with anything, persistence is key.
We would love to know what methods you have used with your fussy eaters?