Many children are notoriously fussy eaters, especially when it comes to vegetables, so some recent research from the University of Leeds (England) gives some hints to parents who are concerned about giving their children a balanced diet.
It is important for children to develop a taste for vegetables early, as food preferences are often formed from early childhood and remain through adulthood. Adults who avoid vegetables typically avoided vegetables as children, but children who accept vegetables tend to continue that habit throughout their lives.
This UK study involved 332 children from six months of age through 3 years, and included children from the UK, France, and Denmark. The researchers wanted to see if these young children would eat one vegetable (an artichoke puree) if it was served plain, or would be better accepted if sweetened with sugar, or if sunflower oil was added. This oil is calorie-rich, and previous research has suggested that children prefer foods that are energy dense.
The study results showed that the most important factor was to introduce the vegetable at an earlier age. Children were much more accepting if given in the first year, and children over the age of 2 who were given the vegetable were more likely to refuse it. This is consistent with many parents’ experience that ages 2 through 6 are the most difficult years for children to accept new foods (scientifically called “neophobia”).
Interestingly, neither adding sugar nor added energy calories (sunflower oil) significantly changed the acceptance of the vegetable. This is good news that parents don’t need to try to disguise the taste of vegetables for children if the vegetables are introduced at a young age.
The other important finding was that it was important to keep trying the new vegetable exposure, since some children would take up to 10 tries before they willingly ate the puree. Most children were reluctant with the first attempts at vegetable feeding but accepted it within 5 to 10 attempts. Only 16% of the children were classified as “non-eaters”, meaning they continued to refuse the vegetable after multiple attempts, and these were more likely to be children from age 2 to 3.
The researchers suggested the best age to start introducing vegetables was from age 6 months—when children normally are introduced to solid foods—and age 2, when the fussy period begins.
For children beyond age 2 or 3, parents might have to use more creativity to encourage vegetable consumption, such as adding vegetable dips and sauces, or chopping vegetables up and mixing them in with other foods the child accepts, then slowly increasing the vegetable content.
The bottom line is that to best encourage good eating habits in your children, the best approach is early, and often!
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