Secret to getting children to eat their greens revealed by Dutch researchers

Kid stopping parent from feeding them broccoli
Labour no longer, mealtimes may get a whole lot easier. Photo credit: Getty Images

While adults know that eating their greens is good for them, toddlers need a little more convincing.

For mums and dads, many a mealtime has been marred by bawling to desperate bribes - and to be fair, I'd also be disappointed if the seemingly innocuous choo-choo train was carrying unwanted cargo directly into my mouth. 

But asparagus affrays, fork-brandishing broccoli battles and skirmishes over spinach could become a thing of the past, with Dutch researchers claiming to have uncovered the secret to getting toddlers to eat their greens

Presenting at the European Congress on Obesity (ECO) conference in the Netherlands last week, researchers from Maastricht University Campus said their findings suggest that toddlers may eat more vegetables if they are given a fun reward for trying them. 

"It's important to start eating vegetables from a young age," said Britt van Belkom, a researcher at Maastricht University's Institute for Food, Health and Safety by Design. 

"We know from previous research that young children typically have to try a new vegetable eight to 10 times before they like it.

"We looked at whether repeatedly asking children to try some vegetables would make them more willing to eat their greens. We were also interested in whether providing a fun reward would make a difference."

To conduct the study, 598 children aged one to four at daycare centres in Limburg, a province in the Netherlands, participated in 'The Vegetable Box' programme over a three-month period. 

Van Belkom and her colleagues randomly assigned the children to one of three groups: exposure/reward, exposure/no reward and control (no exposure/no reward).

Over three months, those in the first two groups were given the chance to try a range of vegetables each day they attended their daycare centre. For trying the vegetables, the children in the first group were rewarded with fun, non-food-related prizes, such as a sticker or toy. Those in the second group - exposure/no reward - were unrewarded for their efforts.

The children's knowledge of vegetables and willingness to taste them was measured at the start and end of the study. To measure their knowledge, the participants were shown 14 different vegetables and asked how many they could name. The veggies in question were tomato, lettuce, cucumber, carrot, bell pepper, onion, broccoli, peas, cauliflower, mushrooms, green beans, chicory, pumpkin and asparagus.

To mesure their consumption, the toddlers were given the chance to taste bite-size pieces of six vegetables (tomato, cucumber, carrot, bell pepper, radish and cauliflower). Researchers then counted how many they were willing to taste.

At the pre-test in the control group, the children could identify around eight vegetables, which increased to around 10 post-test. For the exposure/reward and exposure/no reward groups, the children could identify around nine vegetables pre-test and around 11 after the three-month period. 

Regarding their willingness to try vegetables, the maximum score was 12 (two bite-sized chunks of six different vegetables). At the pre-test, the toddlers were willing to try around five to six vegetables across all three groups. However, this decreased in the control group, remained unchanged in the exposure/no reward group and increased towards seven in the exposure/reward group.

Overall, the children who tried the range of vegetables were able to identify more than at the start of the study, but only the kids who were rewarded for their efforts were more willing to try them. 

While the findings were presented at a conference and have yet to be peer-reviewed, the research indicates that fun, non-food rewards may encourage kids to try more and eat more vegetables in the future.  

"Regularly offering vegetables to toddlers at daycare centres significantly increases their ability to recognise various vegetables," van Belkom said.

"But rewarding toddlers for tasting vegetables appears to also increase their willingness to try different vegetables.

"The type of reward is, however, very important - it should be fun, but not food."