Study Shows How to Get Kids to Eat Their Vegetables

Boy refuses to eat his vegetablesA study by Texas A&M University researchers suggests that getting children to eat vegetables might be as simple as pairing broccoli, cauliflower, and other vegetables with alternatives some may find less appetizing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9 out of 10 children ate less than the recommended amount of vegetables in 2007-2010.

Can Unpalatable Foods Convince Kids to Eat Vegetables?

Many parents who have picky eaters might try almost anything to get their kids to eat healthy foods. One common strategy is promising a child a sweet treat—such as a cookie—in return for eating something more nutritious. This strategy can backfire, especially if the treat is paired with vegetables.

To explore how food pairings affect eating habits, researchers looked at food waste from nearly 8,500 children. They found that plates containing chicken fingers and hamburgers—which are among the most popular foods for schoolchildren—had more vegetable waste, suggesting children ate fewer vegetables. When children were offered deli meats or baked potatoes, they left fewer vegetables behind.

Conversely, children ate less of the main course when they were offered more popular food choices on the side, such as fried Tater Tots. Kids who were instead offered steamed broccoli on the side consumed more of the main dish.

No matter which foods the school offered, researchers found a significant amount of waste left behind. Even the most popular pairing of hamburgers and Tater Tots resulted in a waste rate of about 26%.

Taking Advantage of Food Competition

Researchers did not directly test why children seemed to eat more vegetables when paired with less palatable foods. One possible explanation is the concept of food competition. Two experiments led by health psychologist Traci Mann suggest children are more likely to eat vegetables that are not directly competing with other foods. Children offered baby carrots alone consumed more of the carrots than they did when they received carrots alongside other foods. In a second study, children who were given cups of broccoli while they waited for other food ate more broccoli.

Parents can capitalize on food competition by offering vegetables without an alternative side dish to hungry children during a long road trip or as an after-school snack. When vegetables are part of a meal, children may eat larger quantities if they are not fond of the other offerings on the plate.


  1. Ishdorj, A., Capps, O., Storey, M., & Murano, P. S. (2015). Investigating the relationship between food pairings and plate waste from elementary school lunches. Food and Nutrition Sciences, 06(11), 1029-1044. doi:10.4236/fns.2015.611107
  2. Progress on children eating more fruit, not vegetables. (2014, August 5). Retrieved from
  3. Viskontas, I. (2015, May 7). How to trick a child into eating a vegetable. Retrieved from

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  • Melissa


    October 5th, 2015 at 10:29 AM

    I have also started hiding veggies in the other food choices that my kids do enjoy. I know that this does not necessarily teach them to love certain vegetables but I am hoping that perhaps these can become an acquired taste on their own once the kids get older. But it does allow me to make sure that they are getting the foods that they need without always feeling like it has to come from some bottled supplement. I will do what I can now in small steps and keep trying with the big stuff over time.

  • jason d

    jason d

    October 5th, 2015 at 2:21 PM

    We have always had a clean your plate rule at our house, or at least have to try everything that is on your plate. I am not sure why they would even care what the things are paired with except that if they have more things that they like on their plate then of course the last thing that they will go for will be the vegetables. At least that is my thought.

  • Ross


    October 7th, 2015 at 2:37 PM

    It stuns that me that there are so many families today where the children literally rule everything- where they go, what they eat, the family just revolves around them. I remember that y parents loved us and took acre of us but our opinion was rarely solicited and we just did what we were told. I didn’t love meatloaf but we had it at least every other week and I’m okay even after that. Kids will be fine, make them try new things and just know that they will get over it even if they don’t like it.

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