Vegetable consumption is an important component of a healthy diet; as one of the main food groups vegetable provide fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. However, motivating young children to increase their intake from this food group often presents a challenge. Here are some suggestions what parents can do.
Many parents will know that young children can become fussy and picky eaters, many disliking vegetables and making meal times a struggle. Given that children’s food preferences may determine their future dietary behaviour, it is important to recognise that these food preferences can be shaped.1
How food preferences are shaped in children
Children have an innate liking for sweetness, and a dislike for sour or bitter foods.1-3 Interestingly, taste preferences in babies also seem to be influenced by what the mother eats during pregnancy and lactation. In one study, infants of mothers who had consumed carrot juice regularly throughout their pregnancy or lactation exhibited fewer negative facial expressions while being fed a carrot-flavoured cereal compared with a plain cereal.4 Moreover, those infants who were exposed to carrots prenatally were perceived by their mothers as enjoying the carrot-flavoured cereal more compared with the plain cereal. Infants whose mothers drank water during pregnancy and lactation exhibited no such difference. Therefore, if a pregnant woman consumes a varied diet rich in vegetables, her child may appreciate more different tastes than a child exposed to only a reduced number of different foods during pregnancy and lactation.
Food preferences develop further throughout childhood and parents have a vital role in promoting healthy eating behaviour. The environment in which the child develops and eats is largely influenced by the parents. If a pleasant environment is established, and new foods are introduced in a non-coercive way, a child is much more likely to develop a preference for them. Parental encouragement and rules around eating behaviour are positively related to vegetable consumption.5
Neophobia, pickiness and fussiness
Neophobia is a term that is used to describe a child’s aversion to trying new foods.1-3 Parents often struggle to get their children to try new foods and give up easily when the child will not take to eating it. Children can also occasionally react negatively to a familiar food, which is termed pickiness. Fussiness is a combination of neophobia and pickiness, and these problems tend to peak at the age of 2–6 years, declining to a steady lower level in adulthood.6
What parents can do to encourage a positive eating environment
Parents can play an important role in promoting and encouraging children to eat vegetables through repeated exposure, modelling, and controlling the environment. The more a child is exposed to new foods the more likely he/she seems to try and become familiar with them.1 A child may need 10–15 tastes of a new food to develop a liking for it so giving up after a few attempts will generally fail to introduce the new food.2 Parents should not force the child to have large quantities of new foods, but instead praise them for trying small amounts of one or two new foods – over time continuing to do this will lead to familiarity with the new vegetable and a greater desire to eat it.
Modelling is an important part of motivating children to eat vegetables.2,3,7 If children can see that an adult enjoys trying new foods, they are more likely to try the food themselves. Additionally, if vegetables are readily available for the child this may enhance their consumption.6
Presenting food in a more appealing way by using more colours and shapes may interest children more in trying new foods.2,3 For example a parent can make faces or pictures with food on the plate and cut vegetables into different shapes. Offering food as raw or cooked could be an additional option, given that care is taken with regard to food hygiene. Moreover, involving children in food preparation and, if possible, in growing vegetables in the garden or pots may also increase their desire to try new vegetables.3,7
Children’s food preferences are shaped early in life and parents can positively impact on these by creating an environment where structure exists around eating behaviour. By exposing children to small amounts of a new food repeatedly, modelling healthy eating behaviour, involving children in the growing and preparation of vegetables as well as presenting meals attractively, a child’s eating environment can be improved.
- Benton D (2004). Role of parents in the determination of the food preferences of children and the development of obesity. International Journal of Obesity 28:858-869.
- Wardle J, Cooke LJ, Gibson EL, Sapochnik M, Sheiham A, Lawson M (2003). Increasing children's acceptance of vegetables; a randomized trial of parent-led exposure. Appetite 40(2):155-162.
- Wind M, de Bourdeaudhuij I, te Velde SJ, Sandvik C, Due P, Klepp KI, Brug J (2006). Correlates of fruit and vegetable consumption among 11-year-old Belgian-Flemish and Dutch schoolchildren. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 38(4):211-221.
- Mennella JA, Jagnow CP, Beauchamp GK (2001). Prenatal and postnatal flavor learning by human infants. Pediatrics 107(6):E88.
- Pearson N, Biddle SJH, Gorely T (2009). Family correlates of fruit and vegetable consumption in children and adolescents: a systematic review. Public Health Nutrition 12:267-283.
- Dovey TM, Staples PA, Gibson EL, Halford JCG (2008). Food neophobia and ‘picky/fussy’ eating in children: A review. Appetite 50:181-193.
- Heim S, Strang J, Ireland M (2009). A garden pilot project enhances fruit and vegetable consumption among children. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109(7):1220-1226.