Want to Get More Vegetables Into Your Kids? Offer More Variety!

If you’re a parent struggling to get your kids to eat vegetables, there’s hope! There is at least one way to get your kids to accept and even eat more vegetables.

The good news? It doesn’t involve threats, punishment or banishment to the “naughty corner.”

In fact, researchers in Australia may have hit on a really simple way to increase vegetable intake among those least likely to eat them: your kids. Well, kids in general. But based on a massive pile of anecdotal evidence, your kids, too.

In large part, food preferences are largely learned and that learning begins early in life. Most parents who stop serving, or even offering, their kids vegetables do so because the kids dislike them, or so the story goes. But a new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior says that if we repeatedly offer children a variety of vegetables, their likelihood of both acceptance and repeated consumption goes up. Yay for mom and dad!

It may be a bit early for too much celebration, however. While efforts are underway to try to get more vegetables into our kids, it doesn’t seem to be working as well as hoped. According to the CDC’s 2018 State Indicator Report on Fruits and Vegetables, there were only 9 states where kids ate the recommended number of servings of fruit per day, on average. Vegetables fared even worse, with only 3 states having kids who ate the recommended number of servings per day. (1) If you think other countries are doing better, think again.

“In Australia, dietary guidelines for vegetable consumption by young children have increased although actual consumption is low,” said lead author Astrid A.M. Poelman, PhD, CSIRO Agriculture & Food, Sensory, Flavour and Consumer Science, North Ryde, Australia. “This study introduces an effective strategy for parents wanting to address this deficiency.”

For the study, 32 families with kids between 4 and 6, who ate low levels of vegetables participated. They were broken into three groups. One group introduced their kids to a single vegetable. (“Vegetable, junior. Junior, vegetable. Now go and play.”) The second group introduced their kids to multiple vegetables and the third didn’t change any eating habits.

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The researchers used several methods for data collection. Data was collected while families were eating dinner meals at the research facility, when the kids were allowed to eat as much broccoli, cauliflower and green beans as they wanted. They also noted changes to the actual vegetables eaten at home, in school or in child care facilities via food diaries. Parents also submitted data via self-reporting on normal vegetable consumption.

Parents received vouchers to buy vegetables for the study and were advised on portion sizes, cooking instructions and how to present the vegetables to their kids. All offering strategies were led by the parents. Those families offering multiple vegetables were advised to serve broccoli, zucchini and peas. Those introducing one vegetable served broccoli. The children were served a small serving of vegetables three times a week for five weeks and rewarded with a sticker for trying a vegetable.

Initially, vegetable consumption was uniform across all families at the start of the study, regardless of which measure was applied. Through the course of the study, vegetable acceptance increased in both introduction groups. This means simply that the kids didn’t refuse to be served the vegetables. Consumption, however, was a different story.

For the single vegetable introduction families and those not changing habits, nothing changed. There was no increase in consumption over the five week study. Those families introducing multiple vegetables, however, struck relative paydirt. They saw average vegetable consumption increase from .6 servings per day to 1.2 per day. Double the consumption level, but still well below the recommended average. Interestingly, vegetable consumption did not increase during any of the meals served at the research facility. Since the children ate separately from their parents at these meals, researchers attribute the difference to the unfamiliar setting.

Acceptance levels remained higher at the three-month follow-up point as well. Parents reported to researchers that it was “very easy” to offer the vegetables, with most following the study guidelines for doing so. No word on whether it was easier for the kids to reject the vegetables in favor of pizza bites or tater tots, however.

Dr. Poelman recommended, “While the amount of vegetables eaten increased during the study, the amount did not meet dietary guidelines. Nonetheless, the study showed the strategy of offering a variety of vegetables was more successful in increasing consumption than offering a single vegetable.” (2)

Clearly, offering a variety of vegetables to your kids will increase the likelihood that you’ll get them to actually eat more of them. With consumption falling below what we know is healthy for them, most parents could use a fresh strategy. After all, “because I said so” doesn’t seem to working currently.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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  1. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/downloads/fruits-vegetables/2018/2018-fruit-vegetable-report-508.pdf
  2. Astrid A.M. Poelman, Conor M. Delahunty, Maeva Broch, Cees de Graaf. Multiple vs Single Target Vegetable Exposure to Increase Young Children’s Vegetable Intake. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 2019 https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/downloads/fruits-vegetables/2018/2018-fruit-vegetable-report-508.pdf
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