How to get kids to eat vegetables
Some kids are really good at eating their vegetables. Others are not.
One of our kids eats almost anything.
The other eats a set number of foods. His list consists largely of different types of meat. In fact, one of his first phrases was “I want meat.” Adding anything to his eating repertoire has been slow going. It’s probably because we’ve been doing it all wrong. Unfortunately.
New research1 looks at how parents can effectively get a child to eat a dreaded vegetable. The authors tested four methods to determine which one is effective at getting kids to eat something off the hate-list. There were winners. I’m going to describe the methods and experiment in detail for those of you interested in trying a method.
Before the Intervention
For this experiment, children were two to four years of age. Each child was assigned one target vegetable (that the child disliked) from this list: baby corn, celery, red pepper, cherry tomato, cucumber, and sugar snap peas. The disliked vegetable was determined based on parental ratings.
For eating purposes, the vegetables were washed and raw.
To determine how much of the disliked vegetable the child would eat, each child started with a 30 grams serving of the vegetables chopped in small pieces (approximately, 2.5 grams each). The child was presented with the target vegetable and allowed to touch, taste, and eat. Then the researchers weighed how much was left after the tasting to determine the proportion eaten. This is called the Baseline Measure.
The children also indicated whether they liked the vegetable with smiley faces. A broad smile represented ‘yummy, I like it!’, a neutral face represented ‘ok,’ and a downturned mouth meant ‘yucky, I don’t like it!’
Then the fun began.
The intervention occurred everyday for 14 consecutive days at home. Parents offered the child a small piece of the target vegetable outside of mealtime. The specific manner in which these pieces were presented varied depending the child’s intervention condition. These were the intervention conditions:
|(1) Repeated Exposure||For repeated exposure, the parent offers his child a small piece of the target vegetable without eating it himself. The parent’s expression is to remain neutral regardless if the child tries the vegetable or not. This is because a smile could act like a reward, and a reward is not part of this condition.|
|(2) Repeated Exposure + Modelling||Modelling behaviour is added to repeatedly exposing the child to the vegetable in this condition. In previous research, modelling has been shown to encourage eating of disliked food. Specifically, the parent eats a small piece of the target vegetable in front of his child, expressing a positive response such as “oh this [name of vegetable] is really nice!” Immediately after, the parent offers the child a small piece of the vegetable. Again, the parent’s expression is to remain neutral whether or not the child tries a piece of the vegetable.|
|(3) Repeated Exposure + Rewards||Rewards are added to repeatedly exposing the child to the vegetable in this condition.The parent offers his child a small piece of the disliked vegetable. Then, the parent tells the child that if she tries the piece, she could choose a sticker from a sheet. If the child tries the vegetable, the parent gives her a sticker, praises her with a phrase such as “well done, you tried your [name of vegetable],” and tells the child that she’s receiving a sticker because she tried the vegetable.|
|(4) Repeated Exposure + Modelling + Rewards||This is the “all” condition. A child is repeatedly exposed to the vegetable, modelled behaviour, and offered rewards. Specifically, the parent eats a piece of the target vegetable in front of his child, again saying how nice the vegetable is, and then offers his child a piece. Then the child is told she could choose a sticker if she tries the vegetable and given praise if she does so.|
Each day, the parent jotted down whether or not the child tasted the vegetable. Note – “taste” was defined “as contact with the child’s mouth, including licking, sucking, biting and chewing, where swallowing was not necessary.” That’s a mouthful, isn’t it?
After the Intervention
After two weeks of making offerings and hoping the child ate, the parent took the child back to the researchers. The child again was given a bowl of the target vegetable. Then the weight scale came out to determine how much was eaten. The smiley face scale also came out to determine how much the child liked the target vegetable.
There was also a control condition. In this group, the children came for the before and after sessions – but there was no intervention. It is general practice to have a control condition to determine whether just time and development could induce a change.
Which Method Wins?
We do have a winner. Well, it’s winners.
The researchers compared the measures for consumption and liking of the dreaded vegetable. These are the weight and smiley face scales, respectively.
Before the intervention, there was no difference between the conditions for either measure. Specifically, the kids in all the conditions, including control, ate very little of the target vegetable and equally disliked the target vegetable.
After the intervention, there were only two conditions that showed greater consumption and liking of the target vegetable compared to the control condition:
(3) Repeated Exposure + Rewards
(4) Repeated Exposure + Modelling + Rewards
The results clearly show repeated exposure of a dreaded vegetable bolstered with a sticker reward gives results! The results can come with or without a parent eating the vegetable in front of the child.
The researchers believe the results are due to the fact that kids in the winning groups tasted the disliked vegetable more often than the kids in the other two intervention groups during the two weeks. (Remember each parent kept track of how often the kid “tasted” the offering.) Previous research has shown that a child needs to taste a target vegetable 10-15 times before liking and eating occurs.
So in this study, rewards with repeated exposure was the key.
We weren’t using rewards to get our meat-loving son to eat more vegetables. This is what we did. We irregularly exposed him to a disliked vegetable. Every now and then tomato pieces would appear in his salad. Do you know the first thing he did? He quickly picked out those pieces and threw them on the table or his brother’s plate. This method worked for scrambled eggs for him, so we were hoping it would work for other foods. Apparently, the stickers need to come out of the drawer.
1 Holley, C. E., Haycraft, E., & Farrow, C. (2015). ‘Why don’t you try it again?’ A comparison of parent led, home based interventions aimed at increasing children’s consumption of a disliked vegetable. Appetite, 87, 215–222.