The New Year is upon us and healthy eating is suddenly on our minds. Parents everywhere are looking to rid the house of the last bits of Christmas cookies, candy canes, and gingerbread house fragments. It’s time to put away the holiday comfort foods and exchange them for some healthier family fare. But there’s just one problem….the kids. If your kids are anything like mine, nutritious foods (specifically vegetables) are not often on their top ten lists. Some days they gobble up their greens without question, but many days the vegetables on their plates get ignored, at best.
Research has shown us many times that forcing, bribing, and even coaxing children to eat certain foods does not help them in the long run (You can read a good summary of this information here). Unfortunately, children tend to become more resistant to the foods we are pushing hardest. Because of this, my approach to vegetables is generally just to keep offering them, even when they get the cold shoulder. Keep them on the menu and keep them on their plates, even if they don’t eat them. Over time, this has led to some victories, but it can be discouraging in the day to day. So is there anything else we can do to beef up our kids’ vegetable intake (pun most definitely intended)?
As a matter of fact, yes! And I have some pretty interesting research to back up this wild claim!
What the Research Says
A few years ago, some researchers out of Texas A&M University did a study with the intention of analyzing “plate waste”, or the amount of food thrown away in elementary school cafeterias (Ishdorj A, et al. 2015). There have been a number of studies on plate waste, but this study took a different approach. The researchers wanted to find out if there was a relationship between how much of a food was thrown away, or wasted, and what else it was served with. So do kids eat more broccoli when it is served next to a not-so-favorite entree (i.e. chicken spaghetti)? Turns out that they do! If a vegetable is served alongside a favorite entree, like chicken nuggets, kids eat less of the vegetables. The entree seems to serve as a bit of a showstopper. But put the vegetable next to something kids aren’t so dazzled by, and they eat a bit more of the vegetable.
The study authors admit there were some limitations. School menus were set and so not every entree-vegetable combination could be studied. But there is certainly something to be learned here: food pairings matter and they matter to your kids!
What the Research Means
So should we stop serving our kids their favorite foods in hopes of making their least favorite suddenly seem more appealing? I would answer with a resounding no. Because there is better option. Eliminate the competition altogether and serve vegetables alone. Serve them as a snack or as an appetizer right before dinner (you know, that time when everyone is suddenly STARVING and demanding that you make them food- precisely the thing you are trying to do if they would just leave you alone?!?! Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…).
Food researchers have actually studied this very concept at an elementary school in Richfield, Minnesota (Redden, et al. 2015). Students from grades K-5 were given cups of vegetables before they received their lunch. In one experiment, they received carrots at their tables before getting into the lunch line. In another experiment, they received cups of broccoli while waiting in the lunch line. Take heed parents: during both experiments, no particular instruction or encouragement to eat the vegetables was given. The results? Vegetable consumption increased by 300-400%!!! When the researchers stopped serving the vegetables on their own and returned to the “traditional” style of service, the vegetable consumption went right back down to where it started. (They also tested this with adults in a lab setting and had very similar results).
Turning Research Into Reality
So what can we learn from all of this? It is extremely challenging to choose to eat vegetables when there is something “better” around. But when we isolate the vegetables, the choice becomes a lot easier. However, according to the research, this only works when you continue offering vegetables this way.
So instead of wasting your time on coaxing and bribing your kids to healthful eating, try slipping them a plate of vegetables while they wait at the table for dinner. Or have a vegetable tray sitting on the counter when they come home from school. No nagging needed. Just let them munch away and if they ask for another snack, take your time fixing it and see what happens. You do not need to deny them the foods they love, but rather, give them (and yourself) the best possible chance to make good food choices.
Here’s to a Veggie-Filled 2018!
- Parker-Pope T. (2008, Sept 14). Six Food Mistakes Parents Make. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/15/health/healthspecial2/15eat.html
- Ishdorj, A., Capps Jr., O., Storey, M. and Murano, P.S. Investigating the Relationship between Food Pairings and Plate Waste from Elementary School Lunches. Food and Nutrition Sciences. 2015;6:1029-1044.
- Redden JP, Mann T, Vickers Z, Mykerezi E, Reicks M, Elsbernd S. Serving First in Isolation Increases Vegetable Intake among Elementary Schoolchildren. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(4):e0121283.
- Elsbernd SL , Reicks MM , Mann TL , Redden JP , Mykerezi E, Vickers ZM. Serving vegetables first: A strategy to increase vegetable consumption in elementary school cafeterias. 2016;96:111-115.
- Ferdman RA. (2015, Sept 29). Researchers have discovered a surprisingly simple way to get kids to eat more veggies. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/09/29/researchers-have-found-a-simple-way-to-get-kids-to-eat-more-veggies/?utm_term=.04ad81e9808e