The science of getting your kids to eat more vegetables and trying new food

According to a 2004 study, 19% of four- to six-month-olds are picky eaters, with that figure rising to 50% by age 19 to 24 months. Toddlers are notoriously resistant to anything new, but food intake surveys show that the dislike of vegetables is widespread, starts early, and persists through childhood.

But we also know that the best predictor of whether kids will eat food is whether they like it. So how do we get them to like vegetables—or at least, anything other than chicken nuggets and Cheerios?

The good news is that there is a science to it, and it’s encouraging. In the past decade, researchers have developed some easy and robust techniques to help shape a kid’s food preferences.

The flavor window

Studies show infants have a “flavor window.” It likely opens at four months and closes around 18 months. Hit it, and your kids might be like cauliflower as much as they like cake.

2014 study was one of the first to show that a flavor window exists. Researchers at the University of Birmingham found that kids were most likely to accept a new vegetable they hadn’t tasted—pea purée—between four and six months of age.

Giving a child new foods repeatedly during the flavor window makes it more likely that they will like those foods… [and] more willing to try other new foods.

This provides two awesome lessons. Giving a child new food repeatedly during the flavor window makes it more likely that they will like those foods. And liking those foods makes them more willing to try other new foods.

Exposure and persistence

Many of us might have missed that window or tried it and found it slammed shut.

Even after the flavor window closes, it can still be pried open. The key is exposure and persistence.

The good news is that even after the flavor window closes, it can still be pried open. The key is exposure and persistence. And the trouble is most parents just aren’t persistent enough.

According to the previously mentioned 2014 study, more than 90% of caregivers offered kids food they did not like only three to five times before giving up. In a 2017 survey 85% of mothers reported their infant refused to eat at least one vegetable. Among those mothers:

  • 6% said they immediately decided their infant didn’t like it

  • 33% decided after two meals

  • 57% decided after three to five meals

  • and just 4% continued trying for longer.

Another 2017 study suggests that sticking it out just a little longer can yield results. In a trial of 49 infant-mother pairs (the kids’ average age was 7 months), 

Toddlers can be made to like a new food by introducing it 5-10 times. Kids aged 3-4 may need to try it 15 times.

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