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The importance of eating vegetables: invest in your child’s eating habits.

The importance of eating different types of vegetables and their preventive effect against various diseases is being increasingly highlighted. So, it is remarkable that in practice it remains problematic to eat enough vegetables. In the Western world, we are still a long way from consuming the recommended daily amount of vegetables (250 grams/day for adults). The recommended amount of vegetables per day is not achieved in 88% of countries.

It is never too soon to begin serving vegetables

Why do we struggle to consume enough vegetables? We are confronted with this repeatedly. We also know how difficult it is to change or reverse behaviour or lifestyle. As a parent/reader, you may be wondering what you can do with this information. The answer is a lot. The best way to stimulate vegetable consumption in children is to start early in life. Taste preferences are shaped in the formative years, remaining relatively stable thereafter. These preferences are predictive of later eating behaviour. The saying “learned in the cradle carried to the grave” applies here. I cannot say it often enough; offer a variety of vegetables early on and remain persistent and patient.

Pay attention to your child’s eating signals

We know from scientific research that babies are open to bitter and sour tastes in the first year, making this is the ideal time to offer your baby vegetables so they can learn to appreciate new flavours. Your baby may not immediately indicate that he likes something. By paying attention to your child’s eating signals, you as a parent can become familiar with what your child wants to tell you. For example, if your child shudders at the first bite, this does not mean that he dislikes the food. This indicates that the child still needs to acquire the new taste. When babies taste something new for the first time, they often pull a funny face. That does not necessarily mean they dislike the food. Sometimes, it is nothing more than a surprised reaction to the unfamiliar taste.

Interpreting eating signals

All too often, it is quickly concluded that the child does not like the food, while we know from research that you have to offer a new taste on average 5 – 10 times before a child is used to it. That is not to say the child does not have a preference. It may well be that your child immediately confirms what he likes and dislikes, but the trick is to continue to offer the food that your child may not have accepted at first.

Give compliments

A tip is to start with small quantities and build up gradually. Acknowledge your child with praise when he accepts a mouthful. For example, “well done for giving it a go”. That way, your child will try again. Whereas if you give negative feedback such as, “can’t you eat more or don’t you like it “, the child will not be encouraged to try again. Incidentally, tasting a small mouthful is important because your child encounters the food and is exposed to the taste, which is important for accepting a new taste.

In practice

A while ago, I had an Italian mother with a 16-month-old daughter visit my practice. The mother wanted to know if she was on the right track with feeding her daughter. After reviewing a video of the evening meal, I discussed this with her. One of the things that struck me was that certain habits and gestures are universal. The mother regularly complimented her daughter when she took another bite. She did this in her mother tongue. I regularly heard “bravo, bravissima, motto buono, bene così”. I do not speak Italian, but from the reactions and facial expressions of mother and child, I could see that it was positive. This confirms just how important it is to pay close attention to your child’s signals.

Ignore difficult behaviour and encourage positive behaviour

Much research has been carried out on obedience and children’s ability to learn to listen. It turns out that it is better if you praise and compliment your child when he does things right than if you punish or forbid him. At times, it is better to ignore difficult or fussy behaviour, because prohibiting and punishing provides attention. Therefore, children will repeat the behaviour to get attention because they do not know how else to get it. The more you praise your child when he does things well, the less likely it will be that he exhibits naughty behaviour to get your attention. Ignoring only helps if you supplement it with praising good behaviour.

Try it out

Adults like to receive compliments, likewise children. What can appear normal for an adult, can be new, difficult or a big learning curve for children. They still have so much to discover and learn. Compliment small steps in the right direction. For example, if a child holds the spoon and takes a mouthful, but the food falls off the spoon, you can praise your child just for having a taste. Giving compliments is fun, and at the same time it is a great way to influence the behaviour of a child or stimulate behaviours that you would like to encourage. Try it out!

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