It seems like Nature has played a nasty trick on parents. Vegetables are some of the healthiest foods, but they are also the hardest foods to get children to like.
Why is this? Why do children dislike vegetables so much? Can parents do anything about it?
Human beings developed their innate taste preferences hundreds of thousands of years ago. In prehistoric times people were in danger of starving. Overly sweet, high-fat food was an extremely rare find. Humans developed instincts to shun the plentiful vegetables and crave the rare treats of honey, high-fat grubs, or bone marrow fat which would keep them alive during famines.
Children can still learn to like vegetables, but they are an acquired taste.
Here are some reasons why children don't like vegetables, and what you can do to counter them.
Vegetables are Low in Calories
Most vegetables are extremely low in calories. A cup of cauliflower has 25 calories. A cup of M&Ms has 1023 calories.
All humans have an instinct to overeat sugary, fatty calorie dense food. Children, however, have an especially strong instinct to eat them because children are growing and have a greater need for calories. Scientists have found that children who were growing liked the taste of extremely sweet foods more than children who weren't. It's no wonder that children like foods that are so sickeningly sweet that most adults would find them disgusting.
Vegetables are on the other end of the spectrum. They are extremely low in calories. A prehistoric child who filled up on vegetables would not get enough calories to survive and grow.
What You Can Do Add fats to vegetables. Nut butters, olive oil, cheese, and butter are all fats that you can use. If you're worried about your child getting too much fat, remember that children have a higher fat requirement than adults. Your child should be getting a medium-fat (not low-fat) diet. You can balance out the high-fat dishes with lower calorie foods elsewhere and still give your child a medium-fat diet. Concentrate on healthy fats like nuts or olive oil.
Vegetables are Bitter
Human beings have an instinct to avoid bitter tasting foods. Scientists think that our bitter receptors evolved to detect poisons in foods, many of which are bitter alkaloids.
Children like bland, sweet, and salty foods the first time they taste them. Bitter foods are acquired tastes, because Nature wants to make sure the food is safe before your child eats too much of it.
The first time you ever tasted black coffee or beer, you probably thought they were disgustingly bitter. After drinking them a few times, however, you came to love the taste. Your brain "learned" that coffee and beer were not poisonous, even though they had a bitter taste.
What You Can Do Your child needs to "acquire" the taste of vegetables. He needs to eat them often. Feed your child vegetables at least three times a day. Over the course of a year, he will get 1000 "lessons" in acquiring the taste of vegetables. The poor kid next door, who only gets vegetables a few times a week, will only get 100 lessons, and may never learn to like the bitter taste of vegetables.
Vegetables Have Strong Tastes
Imagine taking a bite of white bread. It has an extremely mild taste. It's almost hard to discern a taste at all, except "starchy."
Now imagine taking a bite of raw broccoli. Broccoli has a very strong taste.
Foods with strong tastes have more chemicals in them. Your child's brain distrusts these chemicals because they could be poisonous. Of course we know that domesticated plants are not poisonous, and many plant chemicals are extremely healthy antioxidants and beneficial phytochemicals. But your child's brain is still in the Stone Age, when many plants were poisonous.
What You Can Do Your child's brain has a technique for testing foods for poisonous chemicals. Your child eats a tiny amount and then waits a few days to see if it's poisonous. If, after a few days, your child does not feel sick, he may eat a little more and see if the bigger portion is poisonous.
Feed your child a new vegetable every few days for 12 to 15 times. At this point, he should like it. If he doesn't, wait six months or so and try again.
Vegetables Are Fibrous
Processed food has easy-to-eat textures that most kids like immediately. Crunchy, creamy, bready are all textures that are easy to eat.
Vegetables can be fibrous. Celery has strings that are hard to break apart. Raw cauliflower is very hard, and chewing breaks it apart into many small hard pieces.
Children have an instinct to avoid textures that are unfamiliar and hard to eat, because these foods may cause choking. If your child is not used to vegetables, he may unconsciously be afraid that the fibrous textures may choke him.
What You Can Do The more vegetables your child eats, the easier it will be for him to chew and swallow them. Give your child lots of vegetables, both raw and cooked. After a while he will be an expert vegetable-chewer!
Vegetables Are Mushy
Some vegetables, like tomatoes, okra, or cucumbers, have a mushy, slimy texture. Human beings have an instinct to avoid mushy, slimy textures because rotten foods have this texture.
What You Can Do Your child will learn to ignore the mushy, slimy textures if he is given many vegetables with this consistency. Give your child tomatoes, okra, cucumbers, and other slimy vegetables often. Make sure they are in tasty recipes. See more on slimy and mushy tastes.
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