Mom, can I have some vegetables please?

Encourage your children to make healthy food choices and reap the benefits for years to come.

No vegetables, no dessert. Simple. This is how the majority of us were cajoled into eating our daily quota of broccoli and peas.

Whether we actually ate them or ended up feeding them to the family dog is another story. Now that it is our turn to be parents, we often find that the seemingly simple tricks we learnt from our parents aren’t making our kids any more enthusiastic about eating their daily greens.

If mealtimes have become a battlefield in your home, or you often find yourself giving in to your child’s demands for their food preferences in order to avoid a tantrum, it may be time to reconsider your approach.

It is indisputable that humans need a large variety of whole-foods – including fruits and vegetables – in their diet to thrive. Adequate nutrient intake in a child’s early years is also essential for proper physical and mental development. In fact, childhood nutrition forms the foundation for good health in adolescence and adulthood. This is why parents often become concerned when their children refuse to eat healthy foods.

A child’s food preferences are determined by a number of factors and can start as early as in the womb. The unborn foetus gets a taste of what foods he/she can expect to find in the world from mom’s amniotic fluid. That taste is further established through the flavours the baby experienced in mom’s breastmilk. And, of course, introducing those first foods is an optimal time to feed them vegetables and encourage healthy eating habits early on. All children have a natural tendency towards sweet foods. It is helpful to limit sweet porridges, teething biscuits, sweet fruit “squishy” packet meals in this time in favour of more wholesome vegetables, meats and healthy fats.

Frequency of exposure is also an important consideration. In nature, many animals instinctively choose to expose themselves to only small amounts of a new food at a time to see if it accords with their digestive system. After several repeated exposures with no adverse effects, they will choose to include the food in their diet. Humans are similar – we tend to grow increasingly accustomed to foods over time. Just think back to the first time you had a sip of coffee or beer. With children, it can take anything from 10 to 20 repeated exposures to a new food for them to accept the food. The more they eat a certain food, the more their appetite changes to enjoy that food.

Perception also plays an important role in food choices. A study published in the Chicago Journal of Consumer Research found that when pre-schoolers were told that eating a specific food would make them healthy and strong, they ate less of the food than if they were told that the food is tasty. When the children weren’t told anything about the food, they still ate more of it than when they heard the health messages. This may be due to the cultural perception that healthy foods are not as tasty as unhealthy foods. Children may also develop negative associations with vegetables if they are nagged or forced to eat their vegetables at mealtimes. After repeated nagging and fighting, the prospect of a mealtime that includes vegetables may fill the child with dread. Sneaking foreign vegetables into familiar – and especially favourite – meals can also be perceived as an act of betrayal; the child may be hurt that a person they love would choose to sabotage a meal they enjoy, which may further fuel their dislike of vegetables.

Here are a few tips to encourage a love for healthy foods in your children:

Walk the talk. Enthusiastically incorporate fruits and vegetables into your own meals. If mom and dad enjoy it, the kids will be more likely to buy into it.

Set boundaries. Instead of giving your child the choice between vegetables or bread, limit the food options to two healthy choices (e.g. you can choose between the cucumber or the carrot). This allows them to feel a sense of ownership over their food intake, without compromising their health.

Cook, serve, repeat. Remember, it can take between 10-20 exposures for a child to become accustomed to a new food. Encourage your child to take at least one bite of the new food at each meal.

Make mealtimes fun. Cut the vegetables into bite-sized chunks, and pair with healthy dips such as homemade hummus or guacamole.

Keep it positive. Never use food as a reward or punishment; instead create positive or neutral associations with food by either not saying anything when a food is eaten, or by presenting the food as something tasty or exciting. Avoid phrases such as “it’s good for you” or “it will make you strong”.

Be transparent. Don’t sneak vegetables into foods; show your children that you include them. This helps children learn that there are many fun ways to prepare vegetables.

With a bit of creativity and preparation, and a generous dose of love and perseverance, you can be well on your way to raising a family of vegetable lovers.