Dr Alison Fildes is a Research Psychologist with an interest in the development and modification of food preferences in early childhood. She completed her PhD in the Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London, where her work explored the contribution of genes and the environment to children’s food preferences and related eating behaviours. Her research focuses on early childhood because of the importance of this period for programming later health outcomes. She has also been involved in the development of effective interventions to modify children’s food preferences with the particular aim of increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. As an independent expert, Dr Fildes’ role is to share her professional knowledge. She does not promote brands.
Research suggests introducing a variety of vegetables early in life encourages healthy patterns of food acceptance. However, feeding infants and children can be difficult and anxiety provoking, especially when it comes to vegetables. Utilising evidence from research, this article offers six practical suggestions for promoting vegetable acceptance during weaning and the early years.
1. Start with vegetables
Young infants are particularly open to new flavours and are more accepting of novel tastes than older children. This means the weaning or complementary feeding period is an ideal opportunity to familiarise children with the flavours of lots of different vegetables.
2. Avoid sweet flavours
Humans have an innate preference for sweet tastes1,2, meaning fruits which are naturally high in sugar will be readily accepted from the start. Currently, the most common first foods given to UK infants are fruits and baby rice3. Vegetables are offered less frequently and are often given in combination with sweet-tasting fruits such as apple and pear4. By combining vegetables with fruits, or even mixing more bitter tasting vegetables (such as broccoli) with sweeter ones (such as carrot) the flavour of a vegetable may be masked. It is important to offer a variety of individual vegetables during complementary feeding to promote acceptance of these less preferred foods.
3. Don’t be put off by facial reactions
Infants commonly display expressive facial responses to novel foods during weaning. Expressions can include wrinkling of the nose or brow, raising of the upper lip or open mouthed gaping. These responses are frequently interpreted as dislike which can result in a food not being offered again. Yet it has been shown that an infant’s facial response does not necessarily reflect their willingness to eat5. Parents should be encouraged to focus on other cues of their child’s readiness to continue eating, such as leaning or orienting their head towards the food and continuing to open their mouth, rather than facial reactions.
4. Patience and persistence
It can be very frustrating when a child refuses to eat certain foods, especially when they have been lovingly prepared. When this happens it is important to remain calm and not give up. The more a child is exposed to a food, the more familiar the food becomes and the more the child learns to like it6. While infants can learn to like a vegetable after only a few tastes it could take many more exposures for an older child. Do not pressure a child to eat if they don’t want to but remember to keep offering a vegetable on future occasions even after it has been rejected previously.
As adults, it is difficult to ignore our own likes and dislikes when selecting food for our children. However, it is important to offer young children a wide variety of foods so they can become familiar with lots of different flavours. Evidence suggests introducing vegetables with a variety of colours, tastes and textures early in life is particularly important for promoting vegetable acceptance7.
6. Stay calm and make it fun
Even children who have eaten a wide variety of vegetables from infancy may suddenly start rejecting these foods as they get older. Fussy eating behaviours are common in young children and tend to peak between the ages of 2 and 6 8,9. Fussiness is highly heritable, which explains why siblings raised in very similar food environments might vary widely in their willingness to eat vegetables. However, this doesn’t mean that these behaviours cannot be changed, the important thing is to remain calm when children are rejecting certain foods. Family mealtimes can be stressful especially with fussy eaters, so engaging children in tasting disliked foods outside of mealtimes and turning it into a game can be very effective. Researchers from University College London developed the ‘Tiny Tastes’ pack, designed to help parents to get their children eating vegetables. For more information on Tiny Tastes and the research behind it visit: http://weightconcern.org.uk/tinytastes
More guidance on helping children to like vegetables can be found at:
- http://www.habeat.eu – HabEat is a European study investigating how healthy food habits are formed in early childhood. This website describes the research conducted across 6 European countries and includes useful recommendations for parents and health professionals.
- https://www.infantandtoddlerforum.org – The Infant and toddler forum has lots of helpful information and resources on early life nutrition, including specific advice on weaning and feeding fussy toddlers.