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The scoop on raising a vegetable lover.

Emma Stirling
Emma Stirling APD

Were you forced to eat your broccoli before getting dessert as a child? Are there veggies your dad didn’t eat and now as an adult you bypass them too? With international nutrition surveys showing that kids are not meeting daily vegetable targets, many even failing to eat one serve a day, it’s time to plant some fresh ideas.

Do as I do It is believed that food preferences are partially inherited (like bitter-taste sensitivity) but they are also malleable and one of the biggest drivers of vegetable consumption appears to be parental role modeling. It’s important to realise, if you serve it, they may not automatically eat it. But if you all sit down to eat together and watch Dad love the six veg stir-fry, your chances of raising a vegetable lover sky rocket. In today’s fast paced world, the responsibility for positive role modeling doesn’t stop at home but extends to childcare workers and teachers too and the influence of peers starts to play.

Repeat eat That face a baby or toddler pulls when trying spinach for the first time is priceless. But be careful you don’t fall in to the trap of thinking they don’t “like” a new vegetable. Neophobia is the term used to describe the dislike of trying new things, including unfamiliar foods. Research shows that it is very common in children aged two to five and in fact, a natural part of development. Studies show parents often give up after three to five tries of a new food, when a minimum of nine exposures may be needed before acceptance. So don’t give up and always plate it up without pressure. Perhaps just a lick today will do the trick tomorrow.

A recent preschool intervention study reported in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics aimed to increase consumption of three unfamiliar or disliked vegetables by repeated exposure over lunch during a six week period. The researchers were interested in the power of positive peer influence – did little Johnny eat more vegetables as he sat next to Jack who loves beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and the whole garden patch? Yes he did, by a small but significant amount.

Play dress up How you prep and dress your vegetables is also key. My daughter’s favourite vegetable (not boasting and still a little shocked) is globe artichoke. How did I achieve this? With great fanfare and a load of seasoned olive oil. Peeling the leaves of the prickly looking vegetable to dip into oil is a very different eating occasion. And one where I’ve let her from an early age slip in a little too much oil, shaved parmesan, toasted nuts or garlic, or herb butter, just to help the veggies go down. In another recent study, bitter sensitive children who were offered a dressing dip with their vegetables in a childcare setting ate 80% more broccoli compared with those served plain.

Health by stealth? Finally, there’s plenty of debate around the idea of sneaking hidden vegetables into kids meals and snacks like beetroot in chocolate muffins or vegetable puree in burger patties. The key is to make sure your kids grow up appreciating the different tastes and textures of whole foods and look at hidden secrets as a boost not the daily deal.

Michelle Obama has just announced the launch of Birdseye’s GenVeg initiative as part of the Partnership for a Healthier America. With the promise of innovative products, role modeling in popular shows like i-Carly and $2millionUSD per year devoted to marketing kids and veg, this dietitian is hopeful the garden will grow.

Emma Stirling is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and health writer with over ten years experience writing for major publications. She is editor of The Scoop on Nutrition – a blog by expert dietitians. Check it out for hot news bites and a healthy serve of what’s in flavour.