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New Study Offers Proven Ways to Encourage Kids to Eat More Vegetables

drawing of dad and daughter amongst giant food

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Key Takeaways

  • New research found that repeated exposure improves children’s vegetable intake.
  • Exposure to vegetable flavors can start as early as in-utero.
  • Exposure to vegetables is more than simply feeding veggies to your kids.

Most parents know that children should eat a wide variety of vegetables for good health and development. However, achieving this goal often proves harder than it sounds.

Recent research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition explains that getting kids to eat their veggies really comes down to repetition. The more kids are exposed to familiar and unfamiliar vegetables, the better your chances of getting them to actually eat them.

Researchers from Flinders University in Australia reviewed numerous scientific studies to compile a list of successful strategies that have been proven to help increase vegetable intake in children. By sharing this ‘how-to’ information, researchers hope to help parents better understand how to approach mealtimes to improve vegetable intake in kids.

How to Increase Vegetable Intake  

The aforementioned study suggests that vegetable exposure can start as early as the prenatal period and ideally the earlier you start the better your results. However, it’s never too late and the key element in all of these tactics is consistency and repeated exposure. 

Prenatal and Infancy

If you can get in early enough, you can help your child's acceptance of vegetables from pregnancy. The amniotic fluid which surrounds the baby in-utero changes flavor according to the maternal diet.

Babies routinely swallow this fluid in-utero as part of normal development. Thus, by adding plenty of vegetable variety to your diet whilst pregnant, you may increase your baby's exposure to vegetable flavors from as early as pre-birth. 

Similar to the amniotic fluid, breast milk can also change flavor according to a mother's diet. If you breastfeed your baby, maintaining a wide variety of vegetables in your own diet is not only beneficial to your own health but also exposes your baby to a variety of flavors. 

First Foods and Complementary Feeding 

When it is time to introduce your baby’s first foods, starting with vegetables instead of cereals or fruit can influence their preference for vegetable flavors. Although this may not be an ongoing preference once other sweeter flavors are introduced. 

Prof Rebecca Golley, PhD

Fostering an enjoyment of vegetables is a marathon not a sprint.

— Prof Rebecca Golley, PhD

Repeated exposure to vegetables can start now. Even if your baby refuses one vegetable, keep trying. It can take 10 or more exposures to a vegetable before your baby or child learns to like the flavor.

Preschool and Beyond

Continue to provide repeated exposure to familiar and new vegetables at this age. Additionally, you may consider introducing non-food rewards when your child shows a willingness to try vegetables. 

“The key to non-food-based rewards is to focus on the willingness to try vegetables.” Advises the studies co-author, Professor Rebecca Golley, “In addition to stickers, stamps or blowing bubbles could also be used to acknowledge when children have been brave and giving something unfamiliar a try.”

What Does ‘Repeated Exposure’ Mean?

Repeated exposure is shown to be the best way to increase vegetable intake in children. But what does repeated exposure actually mean? 

Although the ultimate goal is for your child to eat their vegetables, this may not be where it starts.

“Looking, touching, [and] smelling vegetables are also helpful. These can be a good place to start to keep it light and fun for children.” Says Golley. “Parents can start by just putting 1-2 vegetables the size of a 10 cent coin on children’s plates.”

Registered Dietician, Kerry Jones explains that exposure to vegetables can also mean reading stories about vegetables, growing vegetables in your garden, parental modeling of vegetable intake, or simply looking at vegetables and talking about them whilst in the grocery store. 

Kerry Jones, RD

Food exposure is not only the foods that you offer to your child regularly, but also includes the many ways in which they see, hear, and interact with food.

— Kerry Jones, RD

“There are so many ways to [expose] children to fruits and vegetables and increase their intake at home,” advises Jones. “Food exposure is not only the foods that you offer to your child regularly, but also includes the many ways in which they see, hear, and interact with food.”

Suggested Children’s Books

Golley and colleagues confirmed via their study, that reading books about vegetables is an effective strategy that can increase vegetable intake in children.

Golley suggests the following books as a great way to expose kids to vegetables in a fun and entertaining way: 

How Many Vegetables Should a Child Eat Each Day?

American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson Dr Natalie Muth says this does depend on your child's age, weight, and physical activity levels. She says parents can head to Myplate.gov for a free plan to assess how much your child will ideally eat each day. However, on average most young children will need 1-2 cups of vegetables daily.

Although for some kids this seems like a lot, by spreading vegetables out throughout the day it will be easier to eventually achieve your goal.

“Include a fruit and vegetable at every meal.” Recommends Muth, “Even if the kids don't eat them, the repeated exposure to a healthy balanced meal adds up and makes it more likely they will eat them eventually.”

“It is hard to meet the recommended volumes if we just rely on dinner time.” Agrees Golley, “It is important we start to think about other eating occasions – lunchtime and snacks – as opportunities for vegetables to be eaten. A little bit over a number of meals and snacks will be easier for children.”

What About Food Wastage? 

The idea of throwing away vegetables time and time again is disheartening to many parents and can sometimes be the reason why we give up the battle. Experts agree that persistence is worth it and offer some tips to minimize wastage. 

“Provide small portions for likely-to-be-rejected foods to minimize food waste.” Suggests Muth. 

Golley recommends, “Simply sharing what is on [a parent’s] own plate is sufficient to reap the benefits of regular, consistent, exposure to vegetables.”

As time goes on, this repetition of even small amounts usually teaches children to enjoy the flavor of vegetables, or at least to eat them willingly. 

“Fostering an enjoyment of vegetables is a marathon, not a sprint.” Reminds Golley. “Keep calm and focus on offering a small ‘taste’ of vegetables at meals and snacks.”

What This Means for You

Regardless of how picky they are, getting kids to eat their vegetables can be a tricky task. Dietitians recommend starting slow by simply exposing them to new veggies, even by eating them yourself. Be sure to consult your child's pediatrician before giving them new solid foods.

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Article Sources
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