The secret to getting children to eat their greens: Family meals and NOT bribery, threats or sitting in front of the TV are the best way to get youngsters to eat vegetables, study finds

  • Experts identify what increases and decreases picky eating in children under 10
  • Eating meals as a family and involving kids in food prep can reduce fussy eating
  • Pressuring a child to eat and offering rewards for eating all caused fussy eating

Mums and dads notoriously have a hard time getting their children to eat enough vegetables. 

Now, a new scientific study from Australian experts reveals the most and least effective parental tactics to make sure children are getting five-a-day.

The researchers reviewed 80 health industry studies identifying picky eating in children under 10, mostly based on parental reports and recall. 

They found a more relaxed parenting style, eating together as a family and involving a child in the preparation of food all reduced the likelihood of fussy eating.

Conversely, pressuring a child to eat, very strict parenting and offering rewards for eating, such as being able to watch TV, all made children fussier eaters.  

New research is providing a better understanding of what influences fussy eaters, and what is more likely to increase or decrease picky eating in children under 10

TOP TIPS TO HELP A FUSSY EATER

– Set a good example: a family that eats together has better eating habits

– Schedule regular mealtimes: regular mealtimes reduce levels of stress 

– Get kids involved with food preparation: familiarity and a sense of control can help

– Try to have one mealtime: a separate child’s sitting encourages fussy eating

– Turn the TV off: focus on food, not on screens

– Try to keep mealtimes calm and stress free: will be a better experience for all

– Remove rewards or bribes or punishments for fussy eaters

The study was conducted by researchers at University of the Sunshine Coast (USC), the University of South Australia and the University of Queensland, and published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.   

They’ve provided some of their top tips for parents of fussy eaters, including scheduling regular mealtimes, getting children involved with food preparation and removing rewards, bribes or punishments. 

They also stress the importance of turning the TV off and banning screens of any kind from the dining table – including smartphones. 

‘For parents with a fussy eater, mealtimes can be especially stressful – juggling the family meal and a picky eater is no small feat,’ said lead researcher and USC PhD student Laine Chilman.

‘Some families have kids who turn their noses up at any vegetable. Others are dealing with kids who dislike certain textures or colours of food. 

‘Some of these preferences relate to a child’s characteristics or personality, which are difficult to change, if at all. But others are external factors that could help reduce fussy eating in kids. 

‘Eating together as a family, with siblings, and having a single meal at a regular time all helped reduce food fussiness, as did getting the fussy child involved in the meal, either by helping to choose the menu, or helping to prepare the meal. 

‘Yet if fussy eaters were allowed to eat in front of the TV, or if they were rewarded for eating certain foods, these behaviours negatively influenced picky children.’ 

Researchers in Australia claim to provide a better understanding of what influences fussy eaters in children 

Graphic from the research paper shows the factors that increase and decrease fussy eating in children 

One portion weighs 80g, which is roughly equivalent to:    

– 1 whole root vegetable (carrot, parsnip, but NOT potatoes)  

– 0.5 to 1 whole medium to large vegetable (courgette, leek, pepper) 

1 cereal bowl of salad leaves (lettuce, uncooked spinach) 

Source: World Cancer Research Fund 

In their study, the authors identify several features of the typical fussy eater, including reduced food intake, reduced preference for vegetables, rejecting new foods, preferring a limited variety of foods and refusing food based on texture. 

Typical behaviours of children who were identified as picky eaters included slower to eat or longer feeding time, avoiding mealtimes and ‘inspecting foods’. 

Interestingly, the picky eater ‘was more often male, firstborn and underweight’, the authors claim, citing several different studies in their analysis. 

As well as the individual personality of each child, stress – often caused by actions from the parent such as shouting – is another factor that can explain why children are fussy eaters.

Most of all, parents should completely avoid trying to force meals into their children’s mouths, which can have the effect of putting them off certain foods for life. 

‘When you have a child who is a picky eater, it’s very stressful for a parent or carer – they’re forever questioning whether their child is getting enough nutrients, enough food, and often enough weight gain,’ said co-author Dr Ann Kennedy-Behr at University of South Australia. 

‘Yet it’s important to understand that being overtly anxious or worried can actually contribute to increased picky eating. 

Eating together as a family, with siblings, and having a single meal at a regular time all helped reduce food fussiness

‘Avoiding getting cross and limiting any negativity around mealtime will be benefit everyone. 

‘Positive parenting, no matter how difficult it can be in certain situations, is the best step forward for fussy eaters.’ 

Earlier in 2021, scientists at Penn State University reported that doubling the amount of vegetables on a dinner plate resulted in children eating 68 per cent more greens.  

In their trials, the academics increased the amount of corn and broccoli on children’s plates served at a meal from 60 to 120 grams but kept the rest of the food on the plate the same size. 

Interestingly, seasoning the vegetables with butter and salt did not affect the children’s consumption rates.  

Earlier this month, another team of researchers reported that chemicals in the mouths of children might be behind their dislike of brassica vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and sprouts. 

Enzymes produced by the vegetables react with bacteria in the mouth and produce unpleasant, sulphurous odours, according to the experts.   

According to the Australian Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, most children do not meet recommended diet and nutrition guidelines. 

In the UK, the NHS says children should eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and veg a day, but that portion size may vary with age, body size and levels of physical activity. 

In the US, the daily recommended amount of vegetables for children is about 1.5 cups a day, according to the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.    

KIDS HAVE INCREASED APPETITE FOR VEG IF THEY’RE SHOWN PHOTOS OF THEM: 2019 STUDY 

Another way to get your child to eat veg – show them pictures of the green stuff during playtime 

Children are more likely to eat vegetables if they are regularly shown pictures of them, research revealed in 2019. They are also less likely to be fussy eaters and more likely to be willing to try new foods.

University of Reading researchers behind the study developed 24 eBooks telling the journey of a vegetable from field to plate. 

Dr Natalie Masento said: ‘Children’s acceptance of new foods can be boosted purely by a food’s visual familiarity.

‘The theory of food familiarisation through picture books is well accepted and we hope that, through easy-to-access eBooks, even more parents will be able to use this tool to support their children to eat their vegetables.’

The study worked with the parents of 127 toddlers aged 21 to 24 months. 

Parents identified two ‘target’ foods they wanted their child to eat – one fruit and one vegetable. Families were then randomly assigned to one of three groups.

Parents and children in two experimental groups looked at books about either the target fruit or vegetable every day for two weeks, while a third group did not receive a book.

Parents in all three groups were then asked to offer their child both target foods every day during a two-week taste-exposure phase.

Parental ratings of the children’s liking and consumption of the foods were then collected immediately following the two week period and three months later.

The results revealed the two groups that looked at books with their target foods enhanced children’s liking of their target vegetable after both two weeks and three months.

Nutritionist Bridget Benelam said: ‘The early years are a golden opportunity for encouraging healthy eating habits in children but we know that many parents find it hard to get children to eat plenty of vegetables.

‘This study may show us another way to make these challenges a bit easier for parents and ultimately to encourage children to establish healthy eating habits for life.’   

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