Getting kids to eat their vegetables

Have you ever wondered why we eat the food that we eat?  In an age where, despite knowing the health risk, we still have large proportions of us who are overweight and, sadly, a large number of children who are overweight, too.

Usually, humans eat for three main reasons:

  1. We eat because we are hungry. Our body needs to keep us on an even keel and it makes us hungry when we start to be deprived of energy.  This is homeostatic eating – keeping the things in our body in some sort of balance.
  2. We eat because it is a certain time of the day or because we usually have food in a certain situation. This is called cue-elicited or learned eating.  We might always eat around 6 o’clock at night.  We might always come home after school or work and stand at the fridge and choose a snack.  Certain things outside of us, like the time of day or who we are with or certain weather might trigger us to eat because we have learned to do so over time.
  3. We eat because things taste delicious or are appealing to us in some way. When we eat because something is really palatable, we call this hedonic eating.

Hedonic eating is usually what drives us the eat foods that are not particularly healthy for us, but they taste mighty good.  Because unhealthy foods taste so good, we are prepared to work harder for them.  In most cases, unhealthy food has a higher reward value.  However, not everyone is equally affected by the reward value of certain foods.  Researchers call this, reward sensitivity.  Different children (and adults) will be more sensitive to the reward value of some foods and, the thing is, that reward sensitivity is related to weight.  High reward sensitivity children (and grown-ups) prefer high sugary and fatty food and beverages and these tend to be the kids who are prone to eating too many unhealthy foods.

So, the challenge is – how do we make healthy foods more rewarding? How do we make children like healthy foods more?  Despite knowing that we should eat healthier foods, the consumption of vegetables is far below recommended guidelines.

I’ve just been to a conference where I met some researchers from Belgium.  They have been busy trying to find out ways that we can help kids like their veggies more.

We already know that children’s eating habits are affected by:

  • their preferences for food (and their reward sensitivity)
  • their genes
  • the food that their parents’ consume
  • the way that their parents offer them food
  • and the availability and accessibility of food children can choose from in the home

….But can we change the foods that children like?

Researchers  took a list of vegetables and had children in an early childhood centre determine which vegetable they liked the least.  They voted, hands-down, for chicory.  So armed with the ultimate unlikable vegetable, they set about seeing whether they could change children’s minds about eating it.

So, every second day for a couple of weeks, they repeatedly offered the children a bowl of chicory.  They divided the children into three groups. One group was just given the opportunity to have the chicory each time.  The second group was given a social reward – they were told that the researcher would be really proud of them if they tried it.  The third group was given a sticker each time they ate some of the chicory.  It’s important to note that the researchers weren’t rewarding them for the amounts that they ate (because we do not want to encourage children to override their own internal systems to tell them when they are full and that could result in overeating), just that they tried it.  They also measured how much chicory the children tried each time.

Expecting to find that the children who were rewarded to perhaps have eaten the most chicory, the researchers found that, after a couple of weeks of presenting chicory every second day, all of the groups had started to eat more chicory – whether they had a reward for it, or not.  They all increased their consumption over time.  But, AMAZINGLY, the children all started to report that they liked chicory more over the course of time.

The thing seems to be, that in getting little folk to eat something they screw their noses up at and say that they don’t like, there is no need to make a song and dance about it.

Rewarding tasting a new food, either with a social reward or a little present, was no different to just exposing them to the food reasonably often.  Try just repeatedly making vegetables an option for them.  Of course, don’t offer veggies at the same time as you offer the lollies, chips and ice-cream because these highly hedonic foods will likely always win, but don’t get out of the habit of serving it up to them and see what happens over time.

As a psychologist, it’s always affirming when you get the new information that confirms what you have done as you’ve been making it up as you’ve gone along as a parent.  When my children were younger, we used to have a weekly “try something new night” where we would offer something that they may not have had before.  The kids never had to eat all of it, but it was offered for them to taste.  It was a bit of a weekly adventure trying foods from different cultures or from different plants.

Perhaps you can experiment at your place? …..but remember, the secret does not lie in the bribes or threats, just in a little bit on offer, often, over time.

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