This issue is not just prevalent in our local society but internationally as well. Resistance to vegetables often starts around 18 months of age, accompanying the all-too-familiar image of sealed lips, head turned away and food left untouched on the plate.
Experts have a term for when children refuse to try new foods – “food neophobia” – and it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Peaking between ages two and six, being standoffish towards unknown foods is intuitively meant to protect a child. Because there are so many different kinds of vegetables that a child might feel unfamiliar with, these are often the rejected foods. What’s more, many vegetables are bitter, and children are pre-programmed by nature to avoid bitter tastes, since it may signal the presence of toxic compounds.
Does that mean your child is destined to hate veggies for good? No! We’ve come up with some smart solutions to help you raise a veggie lover:
1. Make the food as familiar as possible
Studies have found that children eat more raw vegetables when they are paired with a familiar dip. Along with reducing the bitterness, these trustworthy dips are familiar territory and help the vegetables appear less “scary”. Some dips you may consider are homemade hummus, yogurt-based dips (go for full-fat!), guacamole, salsa, natural peanut butter, cheese, or whatever sauce you can create in your kitchen with real ingredients. Refrain from serving your child ranch and dressings high in vegetable oil and refined sugars.
2. Repeated exposure is all that is needed
Perseverance is key. Whether you are trying to get your child to like a particular vegetable or simply trying to increase their water intake, 10 to 15 (repeated) attempts are often what it takes to make or break your child’s inclination to a certain substance. During the initial stages, it should not be mandated that your child finishes up the veggies on their plate. Allow your child some time to explore the veggies – feel it, smell it, see it. Simply take the plate away when they do not eat it, and try again a few days later. Don’t panic and most importantly, don’t give up!
3. Children see, children do
Children are great imitators, hence if your child sees you eating and enjoying a range of healthy foods, chances are your child will enjoy it more. This also highlights the importance of having family meals together, since dietary habits are formed during the crucial early childhood years.
4. Build positive associations with healthy food
Refrain from coaxing your tantrum-throwing child with sweet and sugary snacks, because children are fast learners! Soon, they will start associating sweet stuff with comfort and may “manipulate” their caregivers into giving in to their sweet demands. Similarly, avoid pressuring your children to eat veggies (or anything else) as this tends to backfire by spurring negative emotions, which will then become associated with the food.
Wonder how we know these things? The methods of sensory play, such as making associations between sensations, or gradual exposure to varying sensations in exploration, are actually very similar to some of the tips mentioned above. These methods build fundamental skills in a young child that are transferable to several areas in their lives!
Meanwhile, we have included a veggie checklist that you may use with your child to encourage healthy eating at home, or even as a great exposure activity to the grocery store (eg. have your child spot the various types of veggies there are). You can download it here!