A 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.
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.
- 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
- Progress on children eating more fruit, not vegetables. (2014, August 5). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/fruit-vegetables/
- Viskontas, I. (2015, May 7). How to trick a child into eating a vegetable. Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/05/inquiring-minds-traci-mann-vegetables
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