Yes, Kids CAN Learn to Love Veggies

Child in high chair

A Review of Evidence to Support Why Young Eaters Need Veggies ‘Early and Often’

Most young children fail to meet recommendations for vegetable intake, a regrettable fact given evidence suggesting that the early years are a unique window of opportunity to cultivate healthy taste preferences and dietary patterns.

Although the biological development of human taste preferences does not predispose children to favor diets that are low in sugar and salt and rich in vegetables, it is encouraging that taste preferences are malleable and can be shaped and modified by early dietary experiences.

In our latest paper, we compile evidence that shows it is important to include in young children’s diets, varied and positive exposures to the taste, flavors, and textures of a variety of vegetables in order to cultivate a lifetime of healthy, plant-based dietary patterns, improve planetary health, and reduce the likelihood of developing obesity and other chronic diseases.

Key messages of the “Yes, kids can learn to love veggies” paper:

1. Veggies early and often are critical to a happy, healthy life

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help prevent chronic diseases and support weight management but unfortunately, only about 10% of children consume the recommended amounts of vegetables. Since the early years of a child’s life are a critical period for the development of healthy taste preferences and dietary patterns, it is an opportune time to cultivate vegetable acceptance.

2. Through exposure early and often, kids can grow to love veggies

Children are born with preferences for sweet and salty tastes, but not for the bitter, umami, or even spicy tastes of vegetables. It can take 10 or more tastes for a child to accept a new vegetable.The strategy of hiding or muting vegetable flavors, such as mixing them with more than 50% fruit puree, reduces a child’s opportunities to learn and enjoy vegetable flavors.

3. Early veggie variety is key to raising an adventurous, healthy eater

Introducing variety is just as important as quantity because each vegetable provides different nutrients that contribute to good health. Between 4 and 7 months of age, infants appear highly receptive to new flavors and textures and generally require fewer exposures than older children to increase acceptance. Beginning in the second year of life, children become more selective about what they eat. This rejection of new and unfamiliar foods, called food neophobia, is minimal during infancy but gets stronger as the child becomes more autonomous.

4. Role model for kids—cook and eat a balanced, plant-forward diet

Parents and caregivers are gatekeepers; their decisions about what, when, and how to offer foods to children can have as much influence as biology on children’s food preferences and acceptance. The vegetables a child is exposed to during the complementary feeding period should be part of the family’s typical diet and food environment, so that when children develop preferences for those vegetables, they continue to be exposed to them as the child fully transitions to table foods. Family-style meal times are associated with higher vegetable intake and children’s preference for vegetables and their vegetable consumption is predicted by eating approximately the same food as their parents.

Our paper also highlights the shortcomings of vegetable offerings in the U.S. commercial baby and toddler food marketplace and encourages industry to make improvements including affordable products that support veggie-forward diets for the nation’s youngest eaters.

This research fuels PHA’s newest campaign “Veggies Early & Often”that calls on industry leaders, health professionals, and early education partners to raise a generation of veggie lovers by prioritizing innovative approaches to introduce and sustain the consumption of a variety of vegetables that children accept and enjoy.