How to Get Your Kids to Eat More Greens

You'll be surprised at how quickly you can get your kids to actually enjoy their bitter greens! With a little time and energy, they will be devouring them. Read on to find out how.

This month we explore the flavour of bitterness: the evolutionary history, the psychology, the physiology, and most importantly: how to develop your kids palates!

Humans, compared to animals, have an incredibly wide array of potential foods to eat. Using our taste buds to distinguish which foods are toxic and which are good for you is a matter of Darwinian Survival of the Fittest.

History

Mr and Mrs Neanderthal, who lived down the street in 50,000 BC were genetically gifted with a discernable palate and spat out those poisonous berries. Their nextdoor neighbours, Mr and Mrs Simpleton devoured the whole bush without so much as an afterthought and consequently dropped dead just a few hours later. And so, those with a gifted palate survived another day to procreate and eventually evolve into the humans we know today.

So what does this mean for evolved humanity as we know it?

When we’re born, screaming from our mothers’ womb, all we want is calorific sweet milk. From that moment on, some people spend their lives ailed with a sweet tooth, but almost all grow to adore savoury and bitter flavours. As many new mothers know, it’s difficult to get kids tastebuds accustomed to bitter flavours, so why is it that kids hate them but eventually adults love them? How does such a drastic development in our palates occur?

Physiology

Infants and children are born with a natural instinct to avoid potentially poisonous food through the sensation of bitterness through a system of sensory organs including the tongue, mouth and nose. But time and experience change everything.

As an example, rhubarb contains 0.5 per cent oxalic acid. As children we reject this substance as toxic, but as adults we grow to love it. Through repeated experience we learn to love it through a type of learning called operant conditioning.

With repeated experience our body learns, through the law of effect that:

A: There is no negative impact, in small doses it’s not enough to give us kidney stones or any other toxic symptoms. That is, we unlearn the instinct to avoid bitterness. This is called negative reinforcement because we have removed aversive/negative stimuli.

B: We receive positive metabolic outcomes as we ingest essential nutrients and calories. This is called positive reinforcement.

Psychology

For all the psychology buffs out there, you will be interested to know that behaviour increases so quickly and so strongly because:

- Two out of the four laws of effect are congruently in action (and they are the strongest of the four)

- Temporal contiguity is high, as digestion begins just minutes after the behaviour of eating takes place

- Shaping is high, as the behaviour is repeated on a daily basis for our entire lives

How to develop kids palates

In Lehman’s terms, what does this mean for parents trying to develop the taste buds of their kids? With such strong learning and behaviour mechanisms at work, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can get them to actually enjoy their bitter greens! With a little time and energy, you’ll have your kids (or veggie phobic husbands) devouring them in no time at all.

- Avoid sweet and sugary food

More and more exposure to sweets adds to the learned behaviour of liking sweets. As this behaviour grows stronger, it’s harder and harder to override it. Avoid too much fruit and fruit juices.

- Early intervention

As the learned behaviour of avoiding bitterness continues over time, it gets stronger and stronger, making it harder and harder to negate. Start by adding interesting flavour combinations to your baby purees.

- Gradually add a little bit of bitterness

Start with just a small amount of the bitter green and work your way up to larger quantities over time. Try adding finely chopped spinach to bolognese, and eventually you can work it up to having more vegetables than meat!

- Start with the least bitter

Try broccoli and work your way up to radicchio.

- Try mixing bitter foods with sweet foods

For example, add some bitter rocket to a naturally sweet pumpkin risotto.

- Lead by example

Be a role model and use verbal cues such as “mmm I love this broccoli soup”, and behavioural cues - make sure you eat it too! We all know there’s nothing worse than a parent with double standards. 

- Repeat and don’t rush

Never give up, keep trying, little bit by little bit.

- Don’t force kids to eat something they don’t like

This will just create a negative experience with food. It should be positive! The worst thing you can say to a child is “this is a brussel sprout, you’re not going to like it but you have to eat it!”

- Don’t hide the food, but don’t let it be picked out

Be open with your kids about what’s in the meal, dishonesty and trickery is not a positive vibe. That being said, it’s always a good idea to chop it so small or puree it in so it can’t be picked out.

- Get kids in the kitchen

By involving your kids they'll come accustomed to a variety of different foods.

Does anyone have any commentary or experience on the effect of a mother's diet while breastfeeding? We'd love to hear your experiences! Comment below.

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