As a Paediatric Dietitian the question of “how do I get my child to eat more vegetables?” is a one I’m very familiar with. It’s not a simple answer and is likely to involve a response with many “layers”. You see, for many kids the struggle to eat vegetables is real. Here I unpack a few reasons why this might be, and give you tips on how to prevent and manage this issue, particularly in the early days of feeding.
First, it’s important to understand that infants are born with a preference for sweet and salty taste. This, along with a smaller sized tongue filled with thousands of immature tastes buds can influence a preference for these foods compared with bitter flavours such as certain vegetables. This however shouldn’t mean that you only provide sweet and salty food (in fact, youngsters kidneys are not well developed to process salt and addition of salt to food can be quite problematic). Instead, though repeated exposures infants and young children can learn to accept a variety of foods and flavours greater than their innate sweet and salty preferences.
Breastfeeding can also help.
Many longitudinal studies have looked at the relationship between breastfeeding duration; maternal diet during breastfeeding and the child’s intake of vegetables over the course of a few years. Research shows that exclusive breastfeeding for at least 3 months is a predictive factor for a higher intake of vegetables (3 servings per day compared to 1.5 serving per day) when a child is aged 4 years (Burnier, et al 2011). Mother’s can also support their child’s acceptance of new and novel flavours by themselves consuming a diet rich in vegetables and variety during breastfeeding. Some research suggests a mother needs to eat these foods at least 10 times before their child will develop the acceptance of particularly novel flavours (Hausner et al 2009). Here we start to consider that parental role modelling starts very early, far sooner than when you might be sitting at the table providing support and encouragement for your child to “eat the tree” of broccoli.
The timing of first providing vegetables is also considered to be important. The NHMRC** recommends solids to be introduced between 4-6 months but not before 4 months. These solids need to include iron rich menu items to support the infants high requirements to which breastfeeding or formula alone cannot provide. Unfortunately most vegetables are pretty low in iron (including Popeye’s spinach which rose to fame through human error in documenting it’s actually iron intake - 3.5mg per 100g NOT 35mg per 100g). For infants who are provided their first solids outside of the 4-6 month period, there is reasonable research to show that they benefit from being provided with a variety of different tastes more rapidly than the earlier starting peers (Culthard, C. 2014)
Top tips in practice
To support children to become confident and capable vegetable eaters, our top tips are:
- When possible breastfeed, and include at least 5 servings of vegetables per day.
- Enjoy a variety of vegetables whilst breastfeeding (and always) aiming for at least 5 different “colours” per day.
- Introduce iron rich foods and vegetables when your child is aged between 4 and 6 months
- Include iron containing vegetables such as lentils, legumes and green leafy vegetables during the first few weeks of solids.
- Do not add sweeteners (i.e. sugars or syrups) or salt to infant or children’s food
- For toddlers, children, teens and adults include a vegetable (raw, tinned, cooked or frozen) at each meal and snack.
Remember; kids who eat 5 meals per day (breakfast, recess, lunch, afternoon tea & dinner) should have 5 opportunities to eat veggies per day.
- Most importantly, surround your kids with positive veggie eating adults. Eating behaviours are learnt and they need to see you eating veggies to feel confident themselves.
Burnier, D. Dubois, L. and Girard, M. 2011 “Exclusive breastfeeding duration and later intake of vegetables in preschool children” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition Vol 65 pp 196-202
Culthard, C. Harris,G and Fogel 2014 “Exposure to vegetable variety in infants weaned at different ages” Appetite Vol 78 No 1
Hausner, H. Nicklauss, S. Issanchou, S. et al 2011 “Breastfeeding facilitates acceptance of a novel dietary flavour compound” Clinical Nutrition Vol. 29 No. 1 pp 141-148
** NHMRC= National Health and Medical Research Council. Australia’s peak body of medical research.