Published: 03/27/2010 - Updated: 08/14/2019
Vegetable consumption is an important component of a healthy diet; as one of the main food groups, vegetables provide fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. However, motivating young children to increase their intake from this food group often presents a challenge. Here are some suggestions for parents.
Many parents might know that young children can become fussy and picky eaters, many disliking vegetables and making meal times a struggle. Children’s food preferences may determine their future dietary behavior, it is important to recognize that these food preferences can be shaped.
How food preferences are shaped in children
Children have an innate liking for sweetness, and a dislike for sour or bitter foods. 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 with a carrot-flavored cereal compared with a plain cereal. Moreover, those infants who were exposed to carrots prenatally perceived carrot as annoying. 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 behavior. The environment in which the child develops and eats is greatly 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 behavior are positively related to vegetable consumption.
Neophobia, pickiness and fussiness
Neophobia is a term that is used to describe a child’s aversion to trying new foods. Parents often struggle to get their children to try new foods and give up easily when the child doesn’t eat 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.
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, modeling, 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.
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. 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.
Modeling is an important part of motivating children to eat vegetables. If children can see that an adult enjoys trying new foods, they are more likely to try the food by themselves. Additionally, if vegetables are readily available for the child this may enhance their consumption.
Presenting food in a more appealing way by using more colors and shapes may interest children more in trying new foods For example a parent can make faces or images 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.
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 behavior. By exposing children to small amounts of a new food repeatedly, modeling healthy eating behavior, involving children in the growing and preparation of vegetables as well as presenting meals attractively, a child’s eating environment can be improved.
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