All parents want their children to have the best start in life and the British Nutrition Foundation know that a vital part of this is providing them with a healthy, balanced diet. One of the cornerstones of a balanced diet, once solid foods are introduced, is eating fruits and vegetables. But it is well known that most UK adults aren’t getting their 5 a day and there is growing concern that many children are also not getting enough fruits and vegetables in their diet.
Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables can provide a number of important micronutrients for developing children, as well as dietary fibre and additional hydration. However, while fruits may be broadly accepted due to their sweetness, many vegetables are far less sweet and contain bitter flavours that children may dislike. Fruits are great to include, but it’s important that children learn to like and eat vegetables too as these provide a different range of nutrients and get children used a wider range of tastes and textures.
As well as bitter tastes, food neophobia – a fear of new or unfamiliar foods – can also be responsible for the rejection of newly introduced foods. Neophobia is common between the ages of 2 and 6 and results in much of the fussiness that is seen in this age group.
Parents are therefore faced with a dilemma when introducing children to new foods. On the one hand, they know it is important to give their children a healthy start but on the other, rejected foods can lead to food waste, conflict at meal and snack times and a concern that children are going hungry. There are many common strategies that parents use to try and get children to eat vegetables but unfortunately some are not always effective. These include:
- Coercion or forcing, which can increase the child’s disliking of the food due to the stress of the situation,
- Using foods as a reward, which studies shows decreases the liking for the vegetable and actually increases liking of the food used as the reward,
- Hiding vegetables in meals, which does get children to eat vegetables, but since they don’t know they are there they remain unfamiliar with them and may reject them later.
Research has shown that the best way to get children to accept vegetables is to offer them over and over again. The difficulty with this is that it can take between 8 and 15 tries before it works! This is where the See & Eat project can really help. The idea is to allow children to become familiar with vegetables outside of mealtimes and to therefore more readily accept them, without the stress of preparing foods that are then refused.
The See & Eat project is funded by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology and led by psychologists at the University of Reading and with partners including the British Nutrition Foundation. The team has produced eBooks with images and text about many different vegetables, which parents can download and adapt as they wish with new text and pictures. Early research with physical copies of these books has shown promising results, as children who read them tend to have a higher acceptance of the target vegetable. With the new eBooks, the project hopes to be able to reach many more families, and additional research into the effects of these books is underway.
As well as the vegetable eBooks, the project team has also developed a number of free resources, including colouring sheets, shopping lists and games to support parents and carers with activities to bring healthy eating to life.
If you’d like to learn more about the project or download some of the eBooks for yourself, head to www.seeandeat.org