Fall in love with veggies – what’s scientifically proven to work

Baby’s first 20 months are the time he or she is most open to new flavors and textures

Baby’s first 20 months are the time he or she is most open to new flavors and textures

Parents know how important vegetables are to their kids’ health, yet only 1 in 10 kids eat enough of them, leading to another worrying statistic: Only 1 in 10 US adults eat enough fruits and veggies to support good heath. How do you create good vegetable-eating habits? How do you get kids to like vegetables and eat them out of choice, without a struggle?

All habits are easier to form earlier in life, but that’s even more pertinent when it comes to food preferences. Generally, the baby’s first 20 months are the time he or she is most open to new flavors and textures – bear in mind that babies are fed nothing but milk until age 4-6 months. Acceptance of new foods diminishes after that, food neophobia peaks at age 5 years, after which interest in new food usually recovers.

So how do you take advantage of this window to get kids into broccoli, tomatoes and spinach?

A new review, published in the journal Appetite, collected all 46 relevant scientific studies on promoting intake of vegetables in kids under 3 years of age. Among these there were 25 interventional studies and 21 observational ones.

Strategies that work

On repeat

There were 27 studies exposing babies to the same vegetable repeatedly, for 8-10 repeats. All 21 experimental studies find that recurrent exposure increases intake, usually by at least about an ounce a day, and that the younger the baby, the greater the increase in veggie consumption. The 6 observational studies confirm the same trends. Some of these studies had up to 6-month follow up, demonstrating that repeated exposure let to a stable increase in veggie consumption.

How many exposures are needed to change a baby’s initial aversion? Some studies showed an effect already at the third exposure, and by the eighth exposure about 70 percent of babies liked a veggie they previously disliked.

Mix Them up

Exposure to a variety of veggies seems to increase veggie intake in young kids in the 15 studies examining this strategy. When variety is piled on to repeated exposure the advantages are magnified.

Get an early start

Mom’s diet during pregnancy and after birth if she’s breastfeeding may expose her baby to the flavor of veggies very early, well before they eat their first mashed carrot. All the observational studies reviewed in this paper support a relationship between breastfeeding and veggie acceptance.

As to the age in which babies were fed their first veggies, this seems to have just a small effect on veggie affection, hardly detectable when the kids are 4 years old, so no rush  feeding eggplants to a 4-month-old.

See it, eat it

Does showing a picture of a veggie in a book increase a baby’s affinity to the veggie? Four studies investigated this question and suggest that exposing babies to unfamiliar veggies through books, play and touch moves them to try that veggie.

Follow me

Parents who eat vegetables in the presence of their kids tend to have kids that eat vegetables. Three observational studies in this review confirm that setting a good example of eating and enjoying vegetables is associated with higher frequency and intake in their young kids.

Things that don’t seem to work

Hiding veggies

Parents may combine a veggie that their kid doesn’t readily want with a flavor they like, for instance, sugar can be added to green beans, masking its flavor. Although young kids initially prefer a sweetened veggie puree or a high calorie veggie soup the effect doesn’t last.

Bottom line

Repeated exposure to a variety of veggies and fruit is the most effective way to get babies and young kids to eat them. This method is the most proven scientifically, and makes intuitive sense – we’re all subject to the persuasive power of repetition, that’s why we’re served the same messages and ads again and again.

Don’t give up!

Serve veggies in a positive, calm, no pressure way – another clear takeaway from other research is that pressuring kids to eat is counterproductive and it certainly isn’t fun for anyone involved.

It also follows common sense that better-tasting, nicely prepared veggies will be better liked.

Dr. Ayala