Want your kids to eat their veggies? Start putting vegetables on the plate when they're tiny babies, and don't take a wrinkled nose to mean "no."
That's the advice of Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. For years, she's been studying babies and mothers to find out why people like the foods they do. In her most recent work, she had 45 mothers spoon-feed their babies pureed green beans once daily. Half the group also offered the child pureed peaches afterward. At first, the babies offered peaches ate more peaches than green beans; not surprising, since babies prefer sweet tastes. But after eight days, both groups were eating green beans, and the babies increased their consumption of green beans threefold, even the ones who didn't get a sweet dessert. They ate the vegetable even though they raised their eyebrows and used other expressions that usually signal "no." "They'll wrinkle their noses," Mennella says, "but they still continue to eat."
This is good news for parents wondering how on earth to get children to eat healthful foods. There's abundant evidence with older children that new foods have to be presented eight to 10 times before kids will accept them. This study, published in the December Pediatrics, extends that concept down into a child's very first experience with solid food. Indeed, Mennella has found that food preferences start even before birth. In earlier research, she asked pregnant women to drink carrot juice in the third trimester of pregnancy; the babies later favored cereal made with carrot juice, as did babies whose mothers drank carrot juice while breastfeeding. The children had been exposed to the carrot flavor as it was passed through breast milk and amniotic fluid. "It's really a fundamental feature of all mammals," Mennella says. "It's the first way we learn about foods and flavors." In other words, children learn to eat what parents eat, whether they're exposed in the womb or watch Mom and Dad at the dinner table.
It's no surprise that children don't crave kale. Humans are born with an aversion to bitter tastes, which is probably an evolutionary adaptation to avoid poisonous plants. We also relish fat and sugar, because they're the most concentrated sources of energy in a world where, until very recently, hunger and famine were threats to almost everyone. Now, alas, it's easy to supersize the fat and carbs and still hard to choose celery over cookies. Most children rank a Chicken McNugget way higher on the "yum" scale than a carrot. A recent survey found that 75 percent of preschoolers weren't eating the recommended two servings a day of fruits and vegetables; much of what they were taking in was juice. As a result, many of the children were deficient in basic vitamins like A and C. A 2004 study found that 25 percent of toddlers didn't eat even one vegetable on any given day. Schools have lately tried to do a better job of encouraging healthful choices, by putting water in vending machines and fresh fruit in the lunch line. This week, Congress is considering a federal ban on the sale of candy, sodas, and salty fatty food in school vending machines and cafeterias.
The eat-your-veggies war has escalated recently, fueled by two new books that encourage parents to sneak vegetables into treats like brownies and chocolate pudding. Deceptively Delicious by Jessica Seinfeld (wife of the comedian Jerry) and The Sneaky Chef by Missy Lapine have evoked howls from chefs and nutritionists for suggesting that slipping pureed cauliflower into macaroni and cheese (or mashed sweet potatoes into hot cocoa!) is a good idea. There are two big problems here. One, this sends kids the message that brownies are sustenance, not an occasional treat. And two, it never gives children the chance to learn to appreciate vegetables for their own merits.
That last point makes Mennella ballistic. "You can't mask the flavor if the goal is to get kids to eat fruits and vegetables," she says. Plus, by not being shown the pleasures of eating produce, children miss out on one of life's delights. Who wouldn't want to swoon over artichoke hearts or savor a sun-ripened fig? All the research points to this common-sense realization: the earlier and broader a child's experience with a wide variety of foods, the healthier the diet. (A new book, Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed With Insight, Humor and a Bottle of Ketchup by pediatricians Laura A. Jana and Jennifer Shu, offers practical strategies, such as asking children to take a "no thank you" bite of new foods.) Children like what they know, and they eat what they like. Mennella's advice: "Offer the fruit and vegetables you enjoy. The baby's going to eat them, too."
I, too, despair when the lunch bag comes home from school at the end of the day with carrots and apple unmunched. But I also have discovered that Mennella's theory works. If I ooh and ah over the deliciousness of spinach salad, my preschooler will imitate me, smacking her lips as she pops leaves into her mouth. (Who cares if fingers are involved?) This kid's been served broccoli since she was old enough to sit up. She doesn't always choose to eat it. But there's no question she's gotten used to thinking of it as food, and even relishing it. One summer day, I looked for my then 3-year-old in our vegetable garden and found her standing with her face buried in the florets of a broccoli plant, chomping away. She still thinks a McNugget is a culinary marvel. But that annoys me less, now that I know she also takes joy in green things that go crunch.
—The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on goals for fruit and vegetable consumption, for children and adults
—Fruits and Veggies More Matters. This site, funded by the CDC and the produce industry, is the latest version of the federal "5-a-day" program. It includes kid-friendly recipes and printable pages that children can use to plan a shopping list, and tracks their fruit and vegetable consumption
—Healthier US.gov: Sums up federal recommendations on food and nutrition