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Community Educator at Ngala, Stephanie Fairbairn, explores some reasons toddlers become averse to vegetables, and suggests some strategies for getting them to eat more greens.

Have you ever wondered why your once-vegetable-loving baby turned into a vege-phobic toddler at around 14-18 months of age? Why does this happen, and how can we get them back on track with their greens?

Firstly, developmentally, toddlers have a growing sense of independence and this self-determination can also sometimes affect their food preferences. They push boundaries and some tend to say “no” a lot.

Scientists studying behaviour and evolutionary adaptation have proposed some fascinating possible reasons for this. In other words, how humans adapted to their environment in order to survive. Scientists have put forward the idea that babies being carried by an adult in the ancient savannah were relatively safe from harm and potential hazards, but as soon as they became mobile and independent, self-protecting behaviours had to kick in to prevent them from putting anything and everything into their mouths.

This applies particularly to green vegetables. Spinach, broccoli and other green leafy veg possess a group of chemical compounds that provide an ‘alkaloid’ taste – think of the smell when we’ve left the brussel sprouts on too long. Plants have sophisticated defence mechanisms, like spikes, thorns, stingers and chemical poisons to dissuade from being eaten, and many poisons have bitterness as a hallmark taste whereas sweetness tends to be ‘safe’, like breast milk – hence our preference for sweet tastes. The aversion to bitter taste is heightened at toddlerhood, to alert them to potentially harmful things to eat.

The aversion to bitter taste is heightened at toddlerhood, to alert them to potentially harmful things to eat.

To test this theory, researchers from Yale University in the US conducted an experiment with toddlers, looking at how they interacted with non-food items like wooden spoons, metal toys and cardboard, compared to green leafy plants. They found that the toddlers were significantly less likely to touch the green leafy items compared to the other objects, and took longer to reach out to them. There is also research to show that humans are likely to possess a gene that makes us particularly sensitive to detecting bitterness from our taste receptors. As children have more taste sensitivity than adults by nature of their age, adults may not taste flavours as sensitively as children.

 

All this is very interesting, but how do we overcome the battle to get our toddlers to eat their greens? There are several strategies that we can put into practice:

  • What tends to work in the long term so that we enjoy our five vegetables and two fruit a day later in life, is for parents to be seen to role model eating a variety of vegetables and fruit at mealtimes and snacks. You may have noticed already that your toddler copies your actions; what you say, do, and items you use (think mobile phones!). You may have also noticed that there are times they eat food off your plate that they would never eat off their own, this is down to feeling safe to eat food you eat. 
  • Have a fruit bowl in the middle of the table for visibility and accessibility. Think creatively about how you prepare and serve vegetables – cut them in different shapes, use a crinkle cutter, keep vegetables raw rather than cooked, use a dip or sauce, get your toddler to help you wash vegetables and put them on a plate.
  • Be persistent and patient – it can take many times presenting the food to your toddler before it’s accepted.
  • Let your toddler help themselves from a serving plate on the table. 
  • Grow something simple like herbs or tomatoes with your toddler – it’s worth the effort and they learn along the way.
  • Google it! If you are fresh out of ideas pick the brains of millions of others who have gone before. Pinterest and image sites are a good resource for triggering your imagination and creativity.
  • Offer healthy foods and snacks. If your toddler refuses to eat their vegetables, it does not mean they get rewarded with non-healthy food.
  • Relax! We are working towards a long-term habit not a mandatory daily chore. Vegetable success will only come when your child gets there in his own time.
  • Remember, toddler’s tummies are tiny – appropriate servings at this age are two vegetable and two fruit a day – about the size of their own fist.

Remember, toddler’s tummies are tiny – appropriate servings at this age are two vegetable and two fruit a day – about the size of their own fist.

 Unhelpful strategies include:

  • Force feeding: You might win the battle, but you lose the war in the longer term.
  • Cheerleading! Parents who get really excited their two-year-old has finally put the broccoli up to their mouth should not be surprised that this overly emotional response encourages the toddler to press their emotional buttons by putting it down again. It’s a great game!
  • Bribing: ‘If you eat your carrots now, you get ice-cream later’ – this will tend to create a negative association that ‘I have to eat the nasty stuff to get the good stuff’.
  • Telling a toddler that a particular vegetable is good for them and therefore they should eat it. You can try this strategy, but toddlers are not that easily convinced – and it may become the trigger sentence that reinforces an automatic ‘No’.

Check out further information and parenting workshops at www.ngala.com.au

The need of children to be stimulated, challenged and encouraged to take risks is as great as their need for stability and security.

How many parents today would agree with this statement? Our instincts focus around protecting our children and keeping them safe from harm, so messages arguing for challenging our children and actually encouraging them to take risks may seem contradictory.

But this is exactly what child development experts and their research is telling us: in order to help our children prepare for life outside our direct supervision and develop the capacity to deal with unexpected events such as failure, we need to support children to develop the skills and frame of mind to do this. In other words, by providing children with training and experience in managing risk, solving challenges, recovering from setbacks, and dealing with disappointment and failure, we are helping them learn to make better decisions and prepare for life. If not us as parents, then who?

Building brains

Children’s brains are primed for learning in the early years, and experiences in the first five years lay the foundation for future learning and development. By guiding our children through appropriate, challenging situations, providing a stimulating environment, and encouraging risk-taking, we help the child’s brain form problem-solving templates they can draw on when faced with difficulties and roadblocks in life. This can provide the child with confidence in dealing with life’s unexpected events and the resources to recover from setbacks, otherwise known as resilience. Simply put, resilient children do better in later life.

 

 

By providing children with training and experience in managing risk, solving challenges, recovering from setbacks, and dealing with disappointment and failure, we are helping them learn to make better decisions and prepare for life.

Responsible risk-taking

Why is risk-taking so important? We are not talking about reckless, life-threatening risks, but responsible and appropriate risk-taking. We all need to take social and physical risks in life; to form new relationships, get better jobs, and access new experiences and learning, and appropriate risk-taking is a skill we need to teach our children. We do this by stimulating and challenging them, guiding them through the process with encouragement, and by setting boundaries to help decision-making.

Think about your child’s future – teenagers’ brains are geared toward taking risks and they will be more equipped to better assess big risks and make appropriate decisions if their brains have training and experience with smaller risks in their early years.

Resilient children do better in later life.

Emotional regulation

So what does challenging and stimulating our children mean, and how do we do this? One researcher described this as “temporarily destabilising” children; briefly raising their excitement levels above normal so they learn to manage this situation (with our support) and return to emotional balance. This teaches emotional regulation, a vital part of resilience.

With older children, this can include physical play with a degree of unpredictability – chasey and play wrestling, as well as friendly scaring and teasing games and use of humour.

Babies need more care with appropriate support and safety, but can be gently stimulated by slow movement through the air, lifting, and bouncing on your knees or tummy. The golden rule is of course safety, and checking in with your child to ensure they are happy and a willing participant in this activity.

Every child has a different temperament; some can’t get enough of these games, while others prefer less boisterous activities, so keep this in mind. The important thing is that by exciting our child and then helping them learn to calm themselves down, we are training their brains and bodies to deal with unexpected events and changes in emotion.

Praising effort pays off

Providing appropriate challenges to our children promotes problem-solving skills, effort and persistence (keeping at it) – all important parts of resilience. Praise alone does not build resilience.

In fact research has shown that overpraising children about their abilities can have the reverse effect by promoting a false sense of confidence.  We are learning that praise for effort is far more effective than just praise about ability. A number of studies have shown that children who are praised for trying hard consistently persist at a task longer as it gets more difficult compared to children praised for how smart they are. This is important because research supports the proverb “success is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration”.

 

Children’s brains are primed for learning in the early years, and experiences in the first five years lay the foundation for future learning and development.

Friendly competition

As well as letting children explore and play outside, we can play friendly competitive games with our children as they grow (chasey, keepie-off, play wrestling etc). While always keeping in mind the golden rules mentioned above, share the winning and losing with your child and ensure that in order to “win”, your child has tried hard.

When they “lose” we can encourage with words such as “you almost got it that time, keep trying harder”, help them develop new strategies and approaches, and of course praise their effort when it is evident. It is not difficult to see the lesson here – sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but success takes planning, effort and persistence. This practical lesson will be far more effective than any lecture from us.

Experience shows that dads, in particular, enjoy engaging with their children in this way, but these types of interactions from both parents play a vital role in their child’s development and future outcomes. Children who have lots of unstructured, challenging play and feel confident to take risks, will most likely be more ready to face the challenges of life as they grow older, and isn’t that what we want for our children?

For more information visit www.ngala.com.au or call Ngala’s helpline on (08) 9368 9368.