Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sneaky Vegetables: Smart or Shortsighted

Many parents struggle with getting their young children (especially toddlers) to eat a balanced diet. Vegetables are often the major point of contention, with many youngsters have no interest in them, even though they may have eaten them earlier years. I know I struggle with this issue as my toddler son will barely touch, not to mention eat, hardly any vegetables. In recent years, it has become more popular to "sneak" vegetables into other foods that kids normally enjoy like breads, pasta, or even desserts. When I first heard of this idea, it seemed great. Everyone wins--the child gets vegetables and some food they enjoy and parents are content knowing their child is eating a more balanced diet. However, later I started to wonder if this approach might actually undermine kids' desire to eat vegetables in the long run. If they never actually see the vegetable they are eating because it was "hidden" in a muffin or a brownie, will they ever know that they can eat it and enjoy it? 

Luckily, research has come to our aid in this situation and scientists have begun to study this exact issue. Researchers at Columbia University conducted a study of elementary and middle school students in which they were asked to compare a food item labeled as containing a vegetable (e.g., broccoli gingerbread spice cake) to one labeled as not containing a vegetable (e.g., gingerbread spice cake). Students were asked if the items tasted differently and whether or not they preferred one over the other. Unknown to the students was the fact that both snacks had vegetables hidden in them. Surprisingly, for most of the "hidden vegetable" snacks offered, the students did not prefer one over the other and did not indicate that they tasted different. The only exception to this was when the students were presented with chickpea chocolate chip cookies. For this item, students preferred the option not labeled as containing vegetables. 

This finding actually illustrated a very important point--children tend to be leery of food items (particularly vegetables) with which they are not familiar (what researchers call neophobia). Since the majority of the children had not been exposed to chickpeas in the past year, it is not surprising that they were not eager to try chickpea chocolate chip cookies. 

Although this study does not really address whether hiding vegetables in other food will make kids more or less likely to eat the vegetable by itself, it does offer evidence to support exposing kids to a variety of foods. It is important to note that even when the snack was labeled as containing vegetables, the children were no less likely to prefer it. This offers some hope to us parents as continually try to offer vegetables to our kids. It seems that exposing them to different foods is helpful, even if they may not eat them right away. 

I know this advice is sometimes difficult to implement as a parent because many times you feel its a waste to put food on a child's plate they you figure they probably will not eat. It's very easy to get into the habit of feeding your child the same few items that you know they like and will eat. This study, however, provides support for the idea of offering different foods so that kids become familiar with them is the first step in helping them expand their palate.

ResearchBlogging.orgPope L, & Wolf RL (2012). The Influence of Labeling the Vegetable Content of Snack Food on Children's Taste Preferences: A Pilot Study. Journal of nutrition education and behavior, 44 (2), 178-82 PMID: 21256811

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