When it comes to eating vegetables, sometimes kids don’t budge. Parents dread seeing their children’s disgusted facial expressions in the presence of leafy greens and root vegetables, and it is often difficult to determine a sustainable solution.
One option is “hiding” vegetables. A quick Internet search lends hundreds of ideas for sneaking vegetables into meals and snacks. Food companies are supporting this approach with products such as fruit juices, popsicles, and even granola that contain hidden veggies. This quick fix helps increase vegetable intake, satisfies child nutrient requirements, and is a fall back for parents. However, some researchers believe that in order to make a greater, lasting impact on children’s diets, “You want the child to look at the vegetable, taste the vegetable, get used to the vegetable and eat that vegetable…,” says Dr. Gillian Harris, an expert on child food acceptance. Exposure to foods like vegetables has long been understood as a critical factor in child taste development. Psychologist and child feeding expert Lucy Cooke notes, “…Children like what they know and they eat what they like.” Without actively seeing and tasting vegetables, children miss out on a diversity of textures and flavors. In other words, they do not actually learn to like the variety of vegetables available to them. Others believe that children who rely on hidden vegetables may miss learning opportunities about how vegetables are grown, prepared, and cooked.
Experts recommend introducing a wide variety of vegetables sooner rather than later, since establishing healthy eating habits early positively impacts long-term diet and health. One way to get started is letting children play with their vegetables! Researchers believe there is a link between enjoying touch and accepting foods. When children touch, tear, or mash vegetables with their hands, they develop an idea about what veggies might feel like in their mouths, and this can lead to tasting and acceptance.
In a recent study, children who touched and played with fruits and vegetables, which involved creating a picture with them on a paper plate, were more willing to taste these ingredients. These sensory play activities were more powerful than simply watching a researcher play with the fruits and vegetables. Food art and other methods of exposing children directly to vegetables is an effective way of promoting their own self-discovery of healthy food.
Currently, 93% of US children between the ages of 1 and 18 are not consuming enough vegetables. In addition to letting kids see and touch their food, there are other ideas for encouraging children to try new vegetables!
For more information, check out this tip sheet for encouraging your children to eat more vegetables and other resources below.
Allison Milch and Alisha Gaines, PhD, Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University
Spill, Maureen K., et al. "Hiding vegetables to reduce energy density: an effective strategy to increase children's vegetable intake and reduce energy intake." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 94.3 (2011): 735-741.
Pescud, Melanie, and Simone Pettigrew. "Parents’ experiences with hiding vegetables as a strategy for improving children's diets." British Food Journal 116.12 (2014): 1853-1863.
Cooke, Lucy. "The importance of exposure for healthy eating in childhood: a review." Journal of human nutrition and dietetics 20.4 (2007): 294-301.
Cooke, Lucy J., et al. "Facilitating or undermining? The effect of reward on food acceptance. A narrative review." Appetite 57.2 (2011): 493-497.
Coulthard, Helen, and Anne-Marie Sealy. "Play with your food! Sensory play is associated with tasting of fruits and vegetables in preschool children." Appetite (2017).
Tips to Help You Eat Vegetables, MyPlate