It is the end of the year. 2020 is ending soon.
While everyone is busily preparing for a celebrative time as the year wraps up with the Christmas season, one thing bothers you - your child is still not eating his or her vegetables.
Jokes aside, kids can be really picky eaters. It is not uncommon to find children disliking the vegetables that is put on the table. We explore why this is often the case and discovered that there is in fact a biological reason for this phenomena.
One biological explanation to why children dislike their greens is because of the notable bitter taste in vegetables. While this may not be (or no longer be) noticeable by us adults, vegetables do have a slight bitter taste that is caused by its calcium content along with other beneficial compounds which includes flavonoids, phenols, isoflavones, glucosinolates and terpenes. These compounds are beneficial because of their antioxidant and anticancer properties.
Children are more sensitive towards the bitterness found in vegetables which explains their aversion towards vegetables. Bitterness is usually an indicator of poison or potential toxicity in plants. Don’t believe it? Try plucking a leaf of any plant you see and hands down it tastes bitter and is poisonous (don't taste it!). Most plants are bitter and contain toxins. This is how the human race got to where we are at now. We now knows better that vegetables are classified apart from the vast variety of plants in this blue planet. Vegetables are edible plants.
Vegetables do contain the same bitter compounds in most plants. However, rest assured, they are not found in high amounts, thus not conferring any toxic properties when we consume them. The trace amounts present are in fact good for us.
Children’s repulsion towards greens are therefore acted upon by their natural instinct, rather than their cognitive influences that we adults have an upper hand in after understanding the safety and benefits of consuming vegetables.
Why the apparent difference between an adult and a child when consuming the same food type - vegetables?
Time is at play. Instead of the common misconception that our taste buds change overtime as we grow up to acquire a liking towards certain foods, adults have simply “built up a tolerance” to the bitter tastes in vegetables. Through regular exposure to vegetables, our brain no longer perceives vegetables as negative or our receptors towards the bitter taste diminishes over time.
Similarly, this is why children who come to taste bitter beverages like coffee or beer, or dark chocolate for the first time tend to dislike them. On the contrary, many of us adults have a deep appreciation towards their unique taste.
Likewise, children can learn to acquire a liking towards vegetables.
Now that we know there is a biological reason behind children's aversion to eating vegetables, parents can now let out a sigh of relief - “It is normal”. Parents also now have the hope that their acceptance of vegetables can be trained.
Yet, it is one thing to know why kids do not like their greens, it is another thing to get those greens into their mouth. After all, they still need their vitamins and fiber content for a healthy development.
Who knew getting good, healthy and nutritious food down can be such an agonizing experience for kids (some parents can probably relate at one point of their lives) - with tears streaming, loud screams of horror, spitting out of food. The dinner table is usually a mess when those green leafy monstrous things are served.
So, here are some suggestions to make consuming vegetables much more bearable or even a delight for your little ones gradually.
As identified, if bitterness is the hindering factor, parents can reduce the bitterness of their vegetable dishes. Start by assessing the taste of your own cooking and explore new ways or recipes to enhance the dish. If you dislike the dish, it is more probable for your children to dislike it. It should not be shameful to consider the possibility that you are doing injustice to those succulent and flavorful greens of varying textures. Perhaps you are doing vegetables wrongly.
Vegetable preferences among children vary based on their different characteristics such as colour and flavour. They all play a role in a child's acquisition of liking them.
However, it does not mean an unhealthy amount of salt, oil and sugar must be added into your vegetable dish for children to like their veggies. This is of course not sustainable and it defeats the purpose of consuming vegetables as an essential diet component for health’s sake if parents end up feeding children with excessive amounts of salt, sugar and fatty ingredients.
Healthier options to spicing things up or adding flavour are pickling, braising, frying and roasting as opposed to the boring conventional boiling of vegetables. The other tip is to add a dash of familiarity to your vegetable dish. Why must vegetables be all dull and boring? Spice it up by adding your child’s favourite protein like chicken or fish as an ingredient to the vegetable dish. You can even take this opportunity and learn a new recipe or two. Take for example if your child enjoys eggs, the simple solution is to make them an omelette packed with an assortment of vegetables like tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and whatever else you think would taste good in an omelette. You can almost never go wrong with an omelette, so be creative.
Furthermore, almost needless to say, regular and repeated exposure is key. It usually takes 10-15 tries for a child to develop a taste for any particular food, in this case especially vegetables.
Parents can implement regular exposure creatively as well. Instead of forcing children to finish their vegetables in large quantities, perhaps it is more effective to incorporate the disliked vegetable into their favourite dishes, and get them to try bite by bite.
Many of us can attest to how this works. Remember a time when you hated a particular vegetable, but over time, “magically” it starts to taste alright, and now it is your all time favourite vegetable? Sounds relatable? Parents can also opt to expand the variety of vegetables exposed to your children when they are still in their toddler stage. It is worth considering if their vegetable diet is mundane and unattractive to the eyes.
It is not untrue to say the eyes always eat first, before the mouth. Since different vegetables vary in their nutritional value, it is very much encouraged to mix up your grocery choices from time to time. Instead of serving only green vegetables, you can also add other colourful veggies like tomatoes, carrot, corn, purple cabbage, beetroot, etc.
Finally, a key reminder for parents is to avoid extreme associations.
Positive (rewards) or negative reinforcements (punishment) should not be incorporated through a child’s diet. Vegetables certainly should not be used as a form of punishment, not especially if you want them to eat healthily by their own accord in the long run. Unhealthy foods with high fat or oil content and high salt and sugar quantities don’t have to be served during celebrative moments like birthday parties. Party foods for instance can still satisfy the criteria of being exciting, delicious and nutritious. While you can still have their favourites like fried foods occasionally, a balanced diet can still be maintained.
So, train your children well from young. Reduce negative associations with eating vegetables and increase the positive associations. Remember the little habits of consumption in the family setting plays a crucial role in a child’s acceptance or rejection of vegetables.
Different kids vary in their tolerance of vegetables consumption, but pressure is almost inevitable for them to eat their greens. Parents ought not to give up and give in too easily, but to provide appropriate pressure firmly while also being gentle. It is ideal to avoid nagging which will only make eating vegetables even more dreadful.
And of course, cliché as it is, if your children observe from a young age that you eat and love vegetables, they are reinforced with a positive association with the consumption of vegetables. So, lead by example and be a good role model and love your greens.