I love vegetables. My husband loves vegetables. My oldest son loves vegetables. And my youngest son acts as if vegetables are solid chunks of rancid poison. His pediatrician has told me to be patient and that he’ll eventually grow out of it, but here we are, mere weeks before his 13th birthday, and we’ve made little progress outside of baby carrots and lightly salted lettuce. And I am very good at making vegetables taste great, so it’s even more insulting.
I’ve tried every trick in the book—even offering cold hard cash—and still, getting him to finish an entire plate of vegetables has been a near impossibility. However, a new research paper from Penn State University has given me hope that dinner tonight might be different, because the strategy it presents is so simple and obvious, I feel like I should have figured it out 12 years ago. (This is a regular feeling if you’re a parent.)
The potential solution: serve my son twice as many vegetables as I want him to eat. When researchers at Penn State presented kids with a double serving of corn and broccoli alongside single portions of fish sticks, rice, applesauce, and milk, the kids ended up eating an average of 68% more vegetables, notes a news release about the study. After a control test of plain vegetables, researchers added butter and salt to the vegetable and saw no significant difference in how much the children ate.
Another interesting tidbit from the study that might be of use to my fellow long-suffering parents: the researchers intentionally served the corn and broccoli alongside foods that the children liked just fine, but didn’t enjoy that much, in order to make the vegetables look better by comparison.
“We chose foods that were generally well-liked but also not the kids’ favorite foods,” said Barbara Rolls, director of the Laboratory for the Study of Human Ingestive Behavior at Penn State. “If you offer vegetables alongside, say, chicken nuggets you might be disappointed. Food pairings are something you need to be conscious of, because how palpable the vegetables are compared to the other foods on the plate is going to affect the response to portion size. You need to make sure your vegetables taste pretty good compared to the other foods.”
The kids involved in the experiment were between three and five years old, so it’s possible they were more gullible than my preteen. Then again, picky eating is as much about exercising control as it is about eating, so perhaps he’ll still believe he’s winning as long as there’s some food left on his plate. Let me tell you, kids are not nearly as manipulable as I was expecting them to be.