This is a question everyone asks at at one point or another. Quick search on the web immediately pops up with lots of lists of proven ways to make this happen. These ‘proven’ ways include: setting an example, arranging the vegetables into a pretty shape, making food fun, getting kids involved in cooking the food, rewarding good behavior, enforcing the ‘one bite rule’, trying it at least 15 times, offering diverse colors and many others. In a desperate attempt to get my boys to eat a potato in any shape or form, including fries, I tried all of these and they all failed. For my boys potato was just not for eating, they had fun cooking it or throwing it on the floor but not eating it.
I started to dig a little further into why these ‘proven’ ways have failed and I discovered that some experts believe that these strategies are ineffective or even counter productive. As highlighted by Melanie Thernstrom in her article on ‘Teaching Young Children about Nutrition’ teaching children that a particular food like candy is bad actually teaches them that parents are trying to withhold the candy and therefore it must be highly desirable. Similarly giving rewards for eating vegetables teaches children that certain foods are so unappetizing that rewards need to be given out for eating the food. Another interesting experiment showed that if kids are shown 2 drinks which are exactly the same but one is labelled as ‘bad’ and the other as ‘good’, once they have tasted both they conclude that the ‘bad’ one tastes better. No wonder I have failed.
So what does work? Getting children to eat veggies is never easy but a study by Markman and Gripshover ‘Teaching Young Children a Theory of Nutrition: Conceptual Change and Potential for Increased Vegetable Consumption’ showed that teaching children an intuitive framework for understanding nutrition helps them to make the ‘right’ choices which led in their experiment to children themselves choosing to eat more vegetables at snack time. Children who were taught the conceptual framework were shown 5 books each focusing on a different topic:
- dietary variety – showing that eating one type of food is not enough and that we need to eat variety to get all the nutrition we need
- digestion – how the food is broken down in the stomach and how nutrients enter the bloodstream which then carries the nutrients around the body
- food categories – showing how there are few food categories but there are many food category members which may look different but they share similar nutrients for example eggs, soy, chicken and fish all look different but all are excellent sources of protein.
- microscopic nutrients – showing that nutrients are there even if they can not be seen
- nutrients and biological functions – showing that different body functions need different nutrients
It was these books that gave the children an understanding for why vegetables are ‘good’ and why they need to be eaten. At no point were the children told that vegetables are ‘good’ or told to eat more of them, yet they proceeded to choose to eat them at snack time. When asked why they are choosing more vegetables the children responded that they need to eat different foods to get different nutrients into the body. Although the children who were part of the experiment ate more vegetables at snack time the results need to be treated with caution because eating vegetables at snack time in the nursery school may not necessarily translate to choosing to eat more vegetables at home.
What I really love about this particular approach is that it changes the role of the parent from one of policing to one of empowering. As parents we spend so much time setting rules and enforcing them and it is studies like these that show that we need to focus on giving our children the tools and empower them to make the decision for themselves. Once children understand why they need to eat vegetables it is easier to get them to eat them. Off course as parents we will continue to label sodas, chocolate, candy, cakes, fast food as bad and children will continue to defy us in a bid to establish their own identity and will refuse to eat the foods we tell them are good and choose the foods that are bad just to annoy us. However I do believe that once they really understand the how the body works and why they need to eat various foods, they will hopefully choose the unhealthy foods less often and what they learn as little children will stay with them as they grow.
I am excited. Are you?