Childhood obesity is considered a growing epidemic, with recent statistics showing that today, one in five children across the US is considered obese. However, body weight is not the only indication of an unhealthy child. Almost a third of toddlers in our country, 18%-33%, consume no vegetables at all throughout an average day. We all know the classic battle with vegetables-- kids hate them, parents force them, and, in the end, kids have a negative association with mushy green foods, which they take with them to adulthood. What if we could change this relationship with food? There’s a way we can, but to do that, we’ll start from the beginning.
The (Other) Inconvenient Truth
The unfortunate truth is that children are born with an inherent taste for unhealthy foods which will keep them yearning for cupcakes and refusing bok choy.
There are five standard flavors that have been identified and accepted across all food groups: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory). However, Infants are born with an inherent interest in only sweet and salty flavors, a preference that many of us will never kick. We’re born with these cravings for two main reasons:
Sour and bitter flavors are inherently associated with toxins, poisons, and spoiled food, so toddlers will naturally shy away from them.
Sweet and salty foods, on the other hand, are indicative of energy-dense and fatty meals, offering immediate sustenance. Even the healthy foods that children are more likely to eat (e.g., bananas, apples, potatoes, and peas) tend to have more sugar and fewer nutrients than green, leafy vegetables. We are born with a partiality to the foods that will give us immediate energy.
This is why it becomes the responsibility of the caretaker to encourage the integration of nutrient-rich foods into a toddler’s diet-- namely vegetables. And while some establishments like to consider tater tots and french fries vegetables, we mean a real, raw, and varied diet of honest veggies.
The Argument for Varied Veggies
While peas and apples are a good start to a healthy toddler diet, there’s a problem with too much consistency. Feeding children a good diet means a wide variety of vegetables for a number of reasons.
First, a diverse diet of vegetables leads to a more varied, and therefore more effective, gut microbiome. This is because different foods introduce different microbiota, which help us break down and absorb the nutrients in what we’re consuming. A healthy gut biome is absolutely essential to both our survival and adolescent development.
The shocking truth is about 75% of the current western diet is derived from only around 12 plants and 5 animal species. This limits the diversity in our gut biomes, and can consequently lead to certain culinary intolerances. And while foods from animal species can help, fruits and vegetables are the most important ingredient for a healthy microbiota, which has been proven to lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases and cancers.
Second, children who are regularly exposed to new foods are able to build up tolerances to those different food groups. This will result in less sensitivity and fewer food allergies later in life.
So with aisles of tempting sugary cereals coupled with a natural dislike of bitter vegetables, how do broccoli, eggplant, and kale compete with chicken nuggets? We have a few tips for that.
The Brussel Beats the Burger
Based on what we now know about children’s preference for sugar and fat, the age-old question still stands: how do we get kids to eat more veggies?
“People might approach dietary decisions from two ways,” says Danielle Boles, a health psychology researcher at Stanford University. “They can either take a health-focused perspective of what we should eat, or a perspective of what tastes good and leaves us feeling satisfied.” This second option, Boles explains, is more effective, because it pulls on our primitive draw to food, which is first and foremost about taste and satisfaction. That's why if we want to promote healthy eating patterns that last into adulthood, these healthy foods have to actually be appealing to children, not just forced on them.
“Children develop preferences for things they are repeatedly exposed to in a positive context,” explains Boles. And she means repeatedly-- in a study on children’s dietary patterns, kids had to be exposed to healthy foods on average 10-16 times before they started showing a partiality. Many caretakers give up before they hit this mark and continue to believe their kids just won’t eat vegetables.
However, Boles notes that we should never pressure or coerce kids into eating healthier, as that teaches them what they should eat, but it does not alter what they want to eat.
In fact, forcing healthy foods on children was actually associated with a lower fruit and vegetable intake. And the constant restriction of sweet and salty foods will often result in over-indulgence in these foods when the child is exposed to these foods.
In other words, force doesn’t work.
Studies have shown that when we offer rewards to children in exchange for eating their vegetables, those kids tend to show a decreased interest in those healthy foods later.
So bribery doesn’t work either. Overall, trying too hard to control a child’s diet will frequently lead to adverse effects.
One of the only proven ways we’ve seen children genuinely develop a taste for vegetables is through positive social interactions and good physical reactions. “Associations between certain foods and positive or negative experiences can be extremely powerful in shaping a child’s dietary preferences,” says Boles. “And these dietary preferences have shown to then track into adulthood.”
When adults eat healthy foods and show excitement around cooking with and growing vegetables, children will pick up these habits, too. And when kids eat healthy foods and feel good afterward (as opposed to a stomach ache after too much candy), they will naturally begin gravitating towards healthier choices.
The bottom line is that increasing a child’s genuine interest in fruits and vegetables is just as important as making sure they actually eat them-- perhaps even more so.
The only way children will develop a partiality to these foods is constant exposure in a positive light. This exposure doesn’t just mean on their plates-- it means integrating vegetables into their lifestyle. Make it fun to go shopping at the grocery store by allowing them to pick out their own produce; go to farmers markets in the springtime and make a fun game out of it; pick out recipes to try together; get to the root of this issue (pun intended) by starting a garden!
Encouraging children to participate in gardening, from planting the seeds to watering and harvesting the crops, can encourage a sense of pride, responsibility, and excitement around these foods. Inadvertently, it also increases social interaction, physical activity, and can help ease stress.
“We’re really interested in ways we can enhance the experience of eating healthy foods, such as vegetables,” says Boles, “and we theorize that an emphasis on the taste and enjoyment of healthy foods through activities such as gardening or guided tastings of healthy dishes, will provide children with more rewarding experiences with fruits and vegetables.”