ROCHESTER, Minn. — It’s the everlasting challenge of family dinner — how to get your child to eat their vegetables.
With dietary authorities stressing the importance of fruits and vegetables, a pressing matter remains unresolved: most children do not easily let vegetables past their incisors. Less than 2% of American children aged 9-13 meet the dietary recommendations for minimum daily intake of vegetables. As researchers have long known, good advice to eat right is often just that.
“Maybe instead of telling people to ‘eat this, not that,’ we wanted to tell them ‘try doing this, not that,’” says Francine Overcash, PhD, postdoctoral associate at the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, and lead author of a recent study of vegetable-inducement strategies published in the journal BMC Public Health. “We wanted to learn the how-to, instead of the what-to.”
To answer this critical how-to question, Overcash and colleagues enrolled over a hundred parent-child pairs from Minneapolis and St. Paul in a six-week cooking class. The ages of the children (9-12) were selected to align with a period in which children develop independent food preferences. The pairs were drawn from low-income populations experiencing rising rates of obesity. Half were given a cooking class, while the other half were given the same class supplemented with a parent-only add-on: six strategies to make vegetables more enticing.
“The first of these was that they could get the child to help them prepare the vegetables,” says Overcash. They called this the IKEA effect, she says, referencing the build-it-yourself goods sold by the famed furniture retailer from Sweden. “It means that people who create something end up valuing it more.”
Parents were also told to try serving vegetables before dinner, offering vegetables with a bigger spoon, serving two or more vegetables per meal, stripping all non-vegetable foods from the table during a meal, and to serve food on plates with space marked out for vegetables. It was an effort to combine nutrition with a field known as Behavioral Economics — the making of small changes in surroundings to produce large outcomes — and it was the first of its kind.
But it didn’t work.
The study measured children’s vegetable intake, vegetable variety and vegetable liking, among other outcomes. There were no differences in vegetable consumption between the two groups. Among its distressing findings, “the decline in overall vegetable liking,” the authors wrote, “...may be partially explained by the increase in vegetables tried.” In other words, the more vegetables they tried, the more they disliked. “That was a super interesting finding,” Overcash says with a small laugh.
“Maybe we overwhelmed them by teaching them six strategies,” she says. Also, vegetables can be expensive. She says parents shouldn’t give up. “Studies show college-aged adults who remember hating vegetables as a kid, but who were regularly exposed to them anyway, ate more vegetables as an adult. ...They might not want them now, but with exposure and parental modeling they will want vegetables later.”