Does your little one repeatedly ask for jam on toast or fish fingers day in and day out? You’re not alone. A recent study, published in the journal Frontiers in Paediatrics, found that the prevalence of picky eaters in preschool children is relatively high (over 50% in some countries). Fussy eating can have a detrimental impact on your child’s general health and wellbeing, as well as her energy levels.
As parents we all want our children to eat a variety of healthy foods including veggies. But, as research shows, children’s brains are wired to favour sweeter, more calorie-dense foods – including breast milk (and things like muffins and processed, starchy foods later), which have a naturally sweet taste. As a result, many children will turn their heads when offered bitter, sour or salty foods – some of the predominant flavours in vegetables.
What is the solution? Scientists believe a child’s craving for sweeter foods can be tamed with age, and that offering your children a variety of flavours from a young age, can help them to accept different foods and textures.
Variety is the spice of life
If you want your picky eater to try more foods, you must consistently offer them to her, say scientists. It’s that simple!
A recent study published by Elsevier looked at how parents could best encourage their little ones to eat more veggies. The study showed how parents tend to stop offering children foods that they don’t like – especially veggies. However, the researchers found that the best way to encourage picky eaters to try more foods, is to repeatedly offer them a variety of the type of food they don’t like.
With this in mind, we asked Lucinda Lourens, registered dietician and a mom of two, to answer some pressing questions from parents relating to their children’s veggie intake:
How often should you offer your child a specific vegetable before giving up or trying something else?
“You might need to offer your child a new veggie 13 to 15 times before she’ll consider trying it. This doesn’t mean you need to offer the same veggie for 15 consecutive days, but rather every other day over a period of a few weeks. The key is to try and offer it in different ways. For example, grated zucchini, zucchini pasta or zucchini muffins. This will give your child a chance to familiarise herself with the flavour.”
TOP TIP: Never force your little one to try a new vegetable or expect her to finish the portion. Rather respect her cues and willingness to try and eat a new vegetable when she’s ready.
Do fruits and veggies have similar nutritional contents?
“Fruit and vegetables are similar in that both groups are rich in antioxidants and micronutrients, fibre, and contribute to your child’s water intake. However, they don’t necessarily provide the same types, and amounts of micronutrients, and therefore it’s essential to provide a variety in your little one’s diet.
Also, fruit is significantly higher in fructose (sugar) than vegetables. This makes fruits sweeter and less bitter or sour than vegetables. Therefore, a child that fills up on fruit alone won’t be too keen to try vegetables and accept that they could be bland, bitter or sour. Although it’s tricky with picky eaters, ideally you want your child to fill up on more veggies than fruit daily to lower the sugar intake overall in her diet.”
How many fruits and veggies do children need daily?
“The 5-a-day campaign suggests we provide our children with 5 different types of fruit and vegetables daily. 2 fruits and 3 vegetables or 3 fruits and 2 vegetables. This doesn’t include fruit juice, fruit rolls or vegetable crisps, but rather fresh, wholesome options.”
Which vegetables are best to offer first?
“Children usually find starchy vegetable options more acceptable and are more willing to try them as they don’t have strong flavours. These include beans, butternut, pumpkin, sweet potato, potato, cooked carrots, corn, chickpeas, lentils and peas.
“Non-starchy vegetables tend to have strong, bitter or sour flavours that children might find less appealing. However, it’s particularly this group of vegetables that you should be including more often in daily meals to increase your child’s acceptance of these vegetables. They include tomatoes, raw carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant (brinjal), snap peas, cabbage, squash, brussels sprouts, peppers, cucumber, celery, green beans, lettuce, marrows, mushrooms, spinach, watercress and onions.”
Here are Lucinda’s suggestions to get your picky eater to eat more veggies:
- Food acceptance, particularly vegetables, starts with visual sensitisation. This means your child should see vegetables while grocery shopping, in the refrigerator, her lunchbox and in meals. Exposure is key to accepting new options.
- Portion size matters! Small portions can be less intimidating at first, which means your child might be more willing to try it.
- Talk positively about vegetables. Teach your child that veggies nourish our bodies, keep us healthy, and help us to grow. Use language that she can understand and relate to.
- If you have the space, start a veggie garden. Your child will see and learn how veggies grow and may be more familiar with them when they’re dished up for lunch or dinner.
- Be creative. Lettuce cups can be used as boats. Cars can be made by combining cherry tomatoes with a cucumber stick, and you can make a butterfly by combining a baby carrot with sliced pepper rings.
- Provide vibrant, fresh vegetable snacks as part of your child’s lunchbox.
- Involve your child when you cook. Give her age-appropriate instructions during food preparation such as washing, grating, peeling, cutting and stirring.
- Always keep fresh, cut-up vegetable options in small containers on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Toddlers and bigger children can help themselves and nibble on them throughout the day.
- Practise what you preach! Your child will be more accepting of trying new vegetables if you eat them yourself.
- When introducing a new veggie, pair it with a familiar dish your child likes.
- Allow your child to eat washed veggies with her hands. Smelling, touching, rolling, licking and squishing will help her accept the veggies she’s trying.
More about the expert:
Lucinda Lourens is a registered dietitian with a special interest in pediatric nutrition, as well as nutrition for special needs children. She is also a spokesperson for The Association for Dietetics in South Africa. As a mom of two very busy toddlers, who continue to challenge her with nutrition-related matters, she is always looking into alternative ways to include healthy food in everyday meals.
Tammy is a wife, mom and freelance writer with 15 years’ experience in the media industry. She specialises in general lifestyle topics related to health, wellness and parenting. Tammy has a passion for fitness and the great outdoors. If she’s not running around after her daughter, you’ll find her off the beaten track, running, hiking or riding her bike.