As a kid, I hated veg with a passion. I distinctly remember how my mom constantly tried to trick me into eating more veg, how she forcefully put them onto my plate on multiple occasions, and how I sneakily put them back when nobody’s looking.
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I believe that even without similar experiences, everyone could relate to this to a certain extent. So really, why are vegetables so universally despised by kids?
Kids need more energy than veg
Biology play a part in this. Kids need a lot more energy than adults, and vegetables are not likely to provide them with that. In fact, some veg contain so much indigestible fibre and so few calories that one may use up all energy consumed from the vegetable just to digest it. This also explains why kids naturally love food high in glucose, as glucose is the body’s preferred fuel.
Evolutionary taught kids to dislike bitter
Vegetables are generally slightly bitter in taste. This is due to their calcium content and the presence of beneficial compounds such as phenols, flavenoids, isoflavones, terpenes, and glucosmolates.
In evolutionary sense, bitterness is a sign of poison and toxicity. In fact, the bitter compounds in vegetables are indeed toxic, but only when consumed in really large amount. With normal consumption, veg is very beneficial, as we adults would have already learnt by now. Children, however, function on instinct much more than logic; hence, it’s only natural for them to avoid vegetables.
They do not have enough veg-eating experience
If humans are evolutionised to reject bitterness, why do we as adults still eat veg and enjoy them? Basically, we have had enough time and experience to discover that vegetables will not kill us, and to get used to the taste.
The difference between children and adults is that children have yet to learn that vegetables are not harmful. This is also why most kids tend to not like coffee, beer, and dark chocolate the first time they try them. (And of course, we all love them now.)
Vegetables are associated with less favourable memories
Kids tend to associate junk foods such as ice cream, chips and candy with positive memories like parties, holidays and rewards. Unfortunately for vegetables, kids often associate them with distasteful moments, such as parents nagging or them being forced to eat greens against their will.
Luckily, as we grow up, we begin to associate vegetables with health and wellness.
So what can we do?
Let’s get this straight — I’m no experts with kids. At 25 years old, i’m still not a great fan of vegetables… (I’m working on it) … but here’s what my Psychology textbooks and Google says:
1. Reduce the bitterness
Don’t worry, there are methods for reducing the inherent bitterness in vegetables and making them more easy on the palate. If you’re going to serve veg raw, soaking them in ice water for 30 minutes can help to sweeten the taste and lower bitterness. If not, marinating your veg in salt and vinegar would help to relax the bitter notes. Cooking it with creamy sauces (such as cheese, cream, and butter) are also excellent way to dull the bitterness.
2. Serve it with familiar food
Studies have found that children eat more vegetables when they are paired with a familiar food or dip. Take this for an example:
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3. Repeat exposure
Whether you are trying to get over a fear, change a bad habit, or simply trying to like a particular veg more; gradual repeated exposure is the way to go.
Don’t start with eating 15 huge servings of broccoli straight! Instead, try incorporating a few broccolis into some of your favourite dishes, then slowly move towards having broccolis by itself.
4. Neutral or positive associations
Food should never be used as a reward or a punishment! If vegetables are offered alone or before other food, hungry kids are likely to eat them. While some gentle, firm reminders for kids to eat veg are acceptable, it’s best to avoid nagging. Most important of all, if kids often see others eating and loving vegetables, they will slowly learn that eating veg are good for them!