As a parent, you’re responsible for taking care of your child. And you do your best to ensure they eat a healthy, balanced diet. So, when they don’t like to eat vegetables, you feel like a failure. After all, we all know that veggies are good for us.
So, the pressure is on to get your kids to eat up. But today’s the day to cut yourself a break. There are psychological reasons why children don’t like to eat their veggies.
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The “healthier” it is, the less appetizing it is
The more you say vegetables are healthy, the less children want to eat them. According to sociologist and author, Dina Rose, Ph.D., “Health information reduces consumption.
In other words, the more you talk up the health benefits of eating vegetables, the less your kids want to eat it. This is the downside of what I call, the medicalization of the meal. Vegetables = medicine = necessary = taste bad.”
In short, stop telling your kids how healthy vegetables are. This will only make them refuse them more.
Health benefits don’t taste good
In a 2014 study entitled, “if it’s useful and you know it, do you eat? Preschoolers refrain from instrumental food”, researchers told preschoolers about the health benefits of different foods.
With carrots, for example, children were told that they would help them read and count better since they support eyesight.
Not surprisingly, the children didn’t rush to eat their carrots. And this was true for the crackers, which the researchers hyped up with health benefits, too.
This might be a clever way to get your kids to stop eating junk food, but it’s definitely not a productive approach if you want them to eat their greens.
Bitter compounds taste “dangerous”
There are several different flavor profiles, like sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, etc. And over the millennia, the human species has evolved to recognize bitter foods as potentially dangerous.
And these bitter compounds alert our body’s protective responses. This is something that’s been in our DNA for a very long time.
Some vegetables actually contain these bitter compounds, which are due to the calcium within them, along with other safe compounds like phenols, flavonoids, terpenes, and isoflavones.
The only problem is you can’t get your kids to eat these healthy foods. But there are actual scientific reasons for this.
According to Russel Keast, professor of sensory and food science and director at the Centre for Advanced Sensory Science at Deakin University, “Sensitivity [to bitter compounds] is a little bit higher when we’re young. Within this spectrum, there’s also a huge amount of variation between people.”
Therefore, your child may be super sensitive to the bitter compounds in some vegetables, but this will diminish over time.
Fruits are just more special – evolutionarily speaking
Another reason why children may not go crazy for vegetables, according to Keast, is because thousands and thousands of years ago, vegetables were almost always available, and therefore, not very desirable. Fruits, on the other hand, were a special treat.
So, even though you can find both vegetables and fruits in abundance at your local grocery store, the human brain is still set up to place a higher value on fruit – at least from an evolutionary standpoint.
Children have a sweet tooth
The first food that children are biologically prepared to eat is breastmilk. And guess what, it’s pretty sweet!
So, from day one, children are given a naturally sweet food, and when they first taste a piece of broccoli or Brussels sprouts, it’s no wonder they throw it on the floor.
Kids look for foods with fuel
Children need ample amounts of energy to keep up with their growing bodies and minds. And their instinct pushes them to reach for foods that pack an energetic punch.
Unfortunately for well-meaning parents, this usually doesn’t include vegetables. Instead, kids reach for sweet fruits – or just sugar in general – along with fatty foods.
Paired Association works against vegetables
There is a psychological concept called “Paired Associate Learning”, and what this basically means is that we attribute memories and feelings to specific things.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many positive memories and feelings that go along with vegetables, now are there?
But when it comes to processed foods like fried foods, ice cream, baked goods and sugary candy, there are so many positive associations.
Just think about it: Halloween, Christmas, Easter, birthdays, parties, special occasions, going out, etc. These occasions are usually full of sweet treat. And these foods may taste so good because children tend to have positive paired associations with them.
Now, consider vegetables. Are these foods mandatory? If you don’t eat them, are you punished? If so, there’s a good chance the child’s paired association isn’t working in the vegetable’s favor.
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What to do if your child doesn’t like to eat vegetables
Just because there are psychological reasons why your child doesn’t want to eat vegetables, that doesn’t mean they never have to eat them ever again. But it can make you feel better about your current situation.
Nonetheless, vegetables need to be eaten, and there are clever ways you can help your child eat them. Here are four suggestions.
- Don’t promote foods by listing their health benefits. This isn’t a strong selling point for children. instead, promote foods because they taste good. And then, be sure to make them taste good!
- Experiment with different cooking methods, spices, herbs, and oils to improve the taste and texture of different vegetables. Instead of boiling or steaming them, what about roasting or sautéing them? Have you tried fresh rosemary or garlic powder? Who knows, maybe adding one or two simple spices or herbs can transform bitter flavors into something far more palatable.
- Don’t repeat and push foods. This might only backfire and make it even harder for your child to open up to vegetables. As Keast says, “We build up a taste for things through gradual exposure.” So, keep making vegetables, keep eating them and keep encouraging your child to try them. But don’t force or punish them. Remember, positive associations go a long way when it comes to food!
- Be patient. Of course, we want our children to be healthy, fit and strong. But don’t fret too much. Your child will eventually learn that vegetables are not only safe but tasty, too. Whew!
There are psychological and biological reasons why children don’t go gaga for veggies. Knowing this can take the pressure off both you and your child and make eating much more enjoyable and much less of a struggle.