Ever wonder why vegetable intake is notoriously low despite the constant news reports and advice about how much we should be eating them? Why do so many people say they don’t have time to eat vegetables? And why does research point to kids’ believing vegetables just don’t taste good?
Well, I think it starts with a type of “negative veggie conditioning” that starts at the earliest of ages. Think about all the ways children learn that these wonderful foods aren’t very enjoyable. Here are 5 examples of how this happens.
1. Vegetables are not linked to eating enjoyment
From a very young age, children are told to eat vegetables for health reasons. Some are even told their hair will grow long, they will grow taller or their muscle size will increase by eating greens. But kids don’t value health yet, they value taste and satisfaction. And when they see eating doesn’t bring the benefits they are told, they become wary. (Wait, Dad has been saying I would grow big muscles for years now, and it hasn’t happened!)
Kids told to eat crackers that were healthy ate less compared to when researchers said nothing or mentioned they were tasty. Kids assume that if a food provides one function (health), it’s less likely to perform another (taste).
2. Nagging naturally repels
When selling health doesn’t work, nagging, pushing and prompting are often tried. “You need to eat your vegetables.” “Why didn’t you touch your vegetables?” All of a sudden, just seeing veggies equate to dread in a child’s mind. Everywhere they go people are trying to get them to eat vegetables. (If everyone is nagging me to do it, they must not be that good!)
One study revealed that parents who used strategies like encouraging kids to eat when not hungry and rewarding them for taking bites saw an immediate increase intake, but a decrease in preference for fruits and vegetables.
3. No one is forced or bribed to do something enjoyable
So, after nagging, if the kid still isn’t eating vegetables, it’s time to take action. It may mean X number of bites before they can leave or the realization that dessert will not be allowed if they don’t eat at least some of their veggies. In the child’s mind, this strategy further confirms vegetables’ undesirability. (I can’t leave or eat dessert until I get the eating veggies part over with!).
When asked if they now eat foods they were forced to eat during childhood, 70% of college students said “no.”
4. When all else fails, sneak them!
We see the sneak veggie strategy on commercials and in popular books. But when kids find vegetables in their favorite dish, it’s often the deal-breaker. (Now I know it’s true. Mom is hiding them in my food!)
I have no quibbles with bulking food up with vegetables. I add extra to homemade pasta sauce and to muffins and smoothies. But here’s the difference: my kids see it go in. And unlike sneaking, this teaches children that vegetables can be eaten in many different tasty ways (see Super Healthy Kids for fruit and veggie recipes!).
5. Over praising kids for veggie eating
Rewarding kids can take many forms, including praise. Research shows kids praised for doing something they already enjoy experience decreased internal motivation to keep doing it. This can backfire as pointed out by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D. on Parenting Science:
…suppose that Adam loves to eat broccoli. But every time he eats broccoli, his mom praises him for it. Consciously or unconsciously, Adam starts to question his motivation. Is he eating broccoli only for the praise? Adam changes his attitude toward broccoli-eating. It’s a chore, not a pleasure. If the praise ends, Adam loses interest in eating broccoli
There’s little doubt we can get our kids to eat veggies today. But to raise a child who truly loves vegetables takes a totally different approach. It can take some kids many years, as this story on The Lunch Tray illustrates. But when you think about it, it takes children time to do lots of things really well. Why should eating vegetables be any different?
Got a picky eater? Get the latest research and tips in Maryann’s book From Picky to Powerful.
Deanna Segrave-Daly says
Maryann – your post is so spot on. Seriously, if I could give only one piece of advice for parents who ask me how to get their kids to eat healthier, I would say everything you’ve said here (and now I have a post to send them to!)
By no means is my 7 year old an adventurous eater – I often think of the irony of a kid who’s mom is a dietitian yet she’s on a plain food/selective eating streak as of late. But from day one, I’ve never pushed the veggies nor tried to make them seem different than anything else I serve her. On the days we get dessert, I’ll leave her plate out with the veggies and often she’ll come back to eat them AFTER eating ice cream/treat.
Thanks for writing this!
I’m not typical. Even when I was a kid I ate my veggies. I used to think McDonalds hated kids cause the burgers didn’t have lettuce, tomatoes and onions in them. There were very few vegetables and fruits I didn’t like. I like more fruits and vegetables now, but some like Cauliflower, still won’t touch the stuff. Artichoke I ate cause it was a game, get past the thorny leaves to get to the heart. My mom convinced me that the heart was the best part. When I got older I realized her trick. She would soak the artichokes in butter before serving it to my brother and I.
Another reason that kids don’t like vegetables is that there is a lot of social conditioning in advertising that show kids not eating vegetables.
Also, even starting from an early age kids are eating extremely unhealthy, processed foods, generally sugar-laden. This sets up cravings in their bodies for those kinds of foods.