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Warning: Children and vegetables don’t mix!

Updated: Jan 15

First published in Offspring Magazine 2020


Ever wondered why your once vegetable loving baby turned into a vege phobic toddler? More toddlers than not seem to turn away from vegetables commonly around 14-18 months of age. This can be incredibly frustrating for parents who know the health value of including a variety of vegetables in the weekly shop. Why does this happen, and how can we get them back on track with their greens?

In all probability most of us have a story to tell about vegetables in our own childhood…. Sitting at the table for hours on end in front of a plate of 10 stubborn peas that are not going away until we eat them up. – I remember this scenario well, and just maybe they ended up down the back of the piano… So, if we as parents had a history of vege avoidance, how have we changed as grown-ups? For most of us we are more accepting of trying new foods, and probably like a variety of most fruit and vegetables – however, we still may harbour an intense dislike of the very foods we were forced to eat under the stern gaze from… a well-intentioned parent just like you.

So, what may be behind this aberrant vege -shunning behaviour in childhood? Behavioural Scientists have proposed some fascinating mechanisms in our early behaviour that may explain this period of vegetable aversion. Firstly, the very fact that our angelic babies turn into self-asserting toddlers, determined to push those boundaries and saying ‘NO’ to the most reasonable of our suggestions, may explain in part why the greens are side lined. Their growing sense of independence and self-determination also seem to affect the changes in food preferences; and when their meal arrives in the blue bowl instead of the red one….watch out here come the tears!

In terms of evolutionary biology ,humans have adapted to our environment in order to survive;. Scientists suggested that ,when babies were being carried by an adult in the ancient savannah we were relatively safe from harm and potential hazards. But as soon as we got our independence and toddled off into the bush, self-protecting behaviours had to kick in to prevent us from stuffing anything and everything into our mouths – as babies tend to do… Whereas sand, rocks and dead flies seem to get popped into a toddlers mouth regularly, how frustrating that we can’t persuade them to do the same with a bit of spinach? The answer lies in the fact that spinach, broccoli and other green leafy veg, possess a group of chemical compounds that confer an ‘alkaloid’ taste – more well known as the bitter and sulphurous flavours that we smell when we’ve left the brussel sprouts on too long. In nature, plants do not in fact want to be eaten; they would rather be left alone . . Therefore many plants have developed sophisticated defence mechanisms like spikes, thorns, stingers and chemical poisons which dissuade potential grazers. Think cactus. So, the theory goes, that many poisons have bitterness as a hallmark taste whereas sweetness tends to be ‘safe’ like breast milk - cue our ‘sweet tooth’. The aversion to this taste is heightened at this stage of childhood to alert them to a potentially dangerous encounter. Just to make sure, toddlers can also be suspicious of trying new things (neo phobia) so we have the recipe for a good dose of self-preservation as if we were in the wild on an episode of Survivor.

To test this theory, researchers from Yale University in the US conducted an experiment with toddlers, looking at how they interacted with non-food items like wooden spoons, metal toys and cardboard compared to green leafy plants. They found that the toddlers were significantly less likely to touch the green leafy items compared to the other objects, and took longer to reach out to them. There is also research to show that humans are likely to possess a gene which makes us particularly sensitive to detecting bitterness from our taste receptors. As children have more taste sensitivity than adults by nature of their age, adults may not taste flavours as sensitively as children.

All this is very interesting – but how do we overcome the battle to get our kids to eat their greens. There are several strategies that we can put into practice – but it may not include surreptitiously hiding them. We have probably been there before; you’ve got a bit of mashed potato on the spoon and pressed a cube of carrot into it – safely out of sight – in it goes…. And sure enough, out comes the carrot from between his teeth, as your surprised toddler notices all is not as it seems in his mouth and wisely checks for foreign objects. (Adults: think slug in your Caesar salad).

What tends to work in the long term to enjoy our 5 and 2 a day later in life, is for parents to be seen to role model eating a variety of vegetables and fruit at mealtimes and snacks. Have a fruit bowl in the middle of the table for visibility and accessibility. You may have noticed already that your toddler copies your actions, what you say, do, and items you use (try and keep your toddler’s sticky fingers away from your mobile phone!) You may have also noticed that there are times he eats food off your plate that he would never eat off his own, this is down to trust and role modelling. A situation that your child feels it is ‘safer’ to eat food if it’s ok for you.

Remember, toddler’s tummies are tiny – appropriate servings at this age are 2+2 / day for fruit and vegetables – about the size of their own fist.

Tips to encourage your child to love their greens

  • Be consistent and visible in your own consumption of fruit and vegetables around your child

  • Think laterally about how you prepare and serve vegetables, cut in different shapes- use a crinkle cutter; keep them raw; use a dip or sauce; get them to help you wash vegetables and plate them up.

  • Be persistent and patient – it can take many times presenting the food before it’s accepted

  • Let them help themselves from a serving plate on the table – you would be surprised!

  • Grow something simple like herbs or tomatoes – it’s worth the effort and they learn along the way.

  • Google it! – If you are fresh out of ideas pick the brains of millions of others who have gone before. Pinterest and image sites are a good resource for triggering your imagination and creativity.

  • Parents: relax! – we are working towards a long term habit not a mandatory daily chore – vegetable success will only come when your child gets there in his own time.

What strategies may not pay off;

  • Force feeding: – you might win the battle , but you lose the war.

  • Cheerleading! Parents who get really excited their 2 year old has finally put the broccoli up to their mouth should not be surprised that this overly emotional response encourages the toddler to press your emotional buttons by putting it down again….. it’s a great game!

  • Bribing: ‘if you eat your carrots now you get ice cream later’ – this will tend to create a negative association that ‘I have to eat the nasty stuff to get the good stuff’

  • Parent: ‘It’s good for you!’ – Toddler: ‘hmmm so what’ – you can try this strategy, but they are not that easily convinced – and it may become the trigger sentence that reinforces an automatic NO!

Check out further information and parenting workshops at www.ngala.com.au

Above all, make meal time an enjoyable time for the whole family


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