Trying to get young kids to eat enough vegetables has probably been a problem since plates were invented.
Eat those peas or I swear to God …
But the days of threats and pleading might be a little softened by a new idea.
Instead of putting six peas on a plate, thereby suggesting that the ordeal won’t be so bad, Penn State University researchers have gone the other way.
Their study found “simply adding more veggies to their plates resulted in children consuming more vegetables at the meal”.
Getting kids to eat vegetables? Scarily simple
Portion size does matter.
If you put a bigger plate of food in front of a child, they’ll tend to eat more. But that usually means favouring the meat and potatoes over the greens.
The bigger portions of other foods demand their attention, and the vegetables don’t compete.
And there is a phenomenon in birds, a version of which may be in play here.
If you were to spill three kinds of coloured grain in a chook yard, and there was more yellow corn than other grains, the chickens would focus solely on the wheat and not even think about trying the other grain.
And so the researchers set up an experiment where vegetables were more dominant on the plate.
They also wondered if adding salt and butter would make the vegetables more attractive – or more competitive by way of bulk.
The researchers recruited 67 children between the ages of three and five.
Once a week for four weeks, the participants were served lunch with one of four different preparations of vegetables: A regular-sized serving of plain corn and broccoli, a regular-sized serving with butter and salt, a double serving of plain corn and broccoli, and a double serving with butter and salt.
During each meal, the vegetables were served alongside fish sticks, rice, apple sauce and milk. Foods were weighed before and after the meal to measure consumption.
There was one compromise with the foods that were competing against vegetables: They had to be likeable, but not so wonderful as to make it impossible for the vegetables to get attention.
Professor Barbara Rolls, director of the Laboratory for the Study of Human Ingestive Behaviour at Penn State University, in a prepared statement said: “We chose foods that were generally well liked but also not the kids’ favourite foods.
“If you offer vegetables alongside, say, chicken nuggets you might be disappointed.”
She said food pairings were something parents needed to be conscious of, because “you need to make sure your vegetables taste pretty good compared to the other foods”.
The researchers found the larger portions of vegetables were associated with greater intake, but the addition of butter and salt was not.
The children also reported liking both versions – seasoned and unseasoned – the same.
About 76 per cent of kids rated the vegetables as “yummy” or “just OK”.
The researchers found that when they doubled the amount of corn and broccoli served at a meal – from 60 to 120 grams – the children ate 68 per cent more of the veggies, or an additional 21 grams.
Seasoning the vegetables with butter and salt, however, did not affect consumption.
Is this meaningful?
A standard serve of vegetables is about 75 grams or half a cup.
The extra 21 grams eaten in the experiment is less than a third of a standard serve.
Children aged three to five should have three to four serves a day. Maybe every little bit helps.
Hanim Diktas, a graduate student and co-author of the study, said one problem with the bigger-portion strategy is the potential to increase waste if (or when) kids don’t eat all of the food that is served.
“We’re working on additional research that looks into substituting vegetables for other food instead of just adding more vegetables,” Mr Diktas said.
“In the future, we may be able to give recommendations about portion size and substituting vegetables for other foods, so we can both limit waste and promote veggie intake in children.”