We all know that eating plenty of different types of vegetables is important for our health because they contain essential vitamins, minerals and fibre. But, did you know that eating habits developed at an early age can track into later life? This means that the preschool years are an important time for children to explore and experience a wide variety of vegetables (and other food) to set them on the right course for a lifetime of enjoying a healthy and varied diet.
Why don’t they just eat them?
Young children are often naturally cautious about new food and it can take multiple attempts to get them to try something different. This applies to all food, but vegetables can be at an even greater disadvantage! This is because some vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage, have a naturally bitter taste which young children are more sensitive to than older children and adults, meaning they are more likely to be rejected than other food.
What can we do?
Tasting sessions can be a great way to introduce young children to a variety of vegetables. Taking place outside of usual meal occasions, tasting sessions allow children to approach new food in a different way, with time to explore the flavours and textures in a relaxed situation with other children and encouraging adults. Here some top tips for running a tasting session in your preschool setting.
Tips for tasting
- Organise a small selection of vegetables for tasting – three will work well.
- Cut the vegetables into small sample sized pieces and present these in an attractive way, e.g. in colourful bowls.
- Give each child their own plate and allow them to serve their sample onto the plate with a spoon. (Make it a ‘grown-up’ experience!)
- Model how to taste the vegetables – look at, smell and taste each sample, describe what you notice. You could liken the vegetables to positive objects or experiences, e.g. This pepper is as yellow as the sun, its like a sunbeam!
- Try one vegetable at a time and have a sip of water between each type.
- Make sure it is a positive experience. Be encouraging and enthusiastic.
- Praise those children who are willing to try samples.
- Do not force children to try any of the vegetables, just provide encouragement.
- Use the My food book resource on Food – a fact of life to allow children to record their tasting experience using smiley faces and drawings.
- Award children with the Alisha or Ronnie Supertaster certificate for trying the vegetables.
You can find practitioner notes and resources for running tasting sessions with young children on the Food – a fact of life website.
Sometimes offering vegetables at mealtimes and running tasting activity may not be enough! Studies show that the best way to get children to eat more vegetables is to keep offering them over and over again (e.g. 10 or more times), but repeatedly buying, preparing and providing vegetables that are then rejected can be a challenge. So, what else can be done?
Learning to like vegetables
Research undertaken by Reading University showed that looking at simple picture books of where vegetables come from, how they grow, are sold in shops, prepared and look when they are ready to eat, can help preschool children learn to like vegetables that they haven’t tried before or didn’t previously like. The psychology behind this is that seeing images of a food can make it feel more familiar and can help reduce the natural anxiety that many young children have about trying new food, meaning they may then accept different vegetables more readily.
Based on these findings, the See & Eat project, led by psychologists at the University of Reading*, created 24 ebooks, each exploring a different vegetable, e.g. aubergines, butternut squash, spinach and sweet potato. Each eBook comprises a set of images and accompanying text that show the journey of a vegetable ‘from farm to fork’. This allows children to not only see the vegetable, but to have a basic understanding of how it is grown and what it looks like in meals and snacks. All the details about how to access the free ebooks, plus additional activities and resources to use with these, can be found here: https://www.seeandeat.org/
To support the See & Eat project, the British Nutrition Foundation has produced a short leaflet about encouraging vegetable consumption - a great resources to share with parents/carers.
Getting young children to eat a wide variety of vegetables might be a challenge at times, but taking multiple approaches such as running tasting sessions, offering a wide variety of vegetables at meal and snack times, using visual vegetable-based resources, such as the ebooks, and providing guidance for parents/carers will go a long way to helping young children on their journey to having a healthy varied diet now, and in the future.
If you use the See & Eat vegetable ebooks, why not share how you get on using with the hashtag #SeeandEatVeg on Twitter, or email the See and Eat team at SeeAndEat@reading.ac.uk
*This activity has received funding from EIT Food, the innovation community on Food of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the EU, under the Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.
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