Vegetables first: How to get children loving veggies

Weaning with vegetables before fruit gives babies the best chance of enjoying the green stuff as they grow up, researchers have found.

‘Every child has the potential to learn to enjoy eating fruit and vegetables when they are given the opportunity to do so, according to a review of the evidence by the British Nutrition Foundation.

The report claims that introducing a wide range of the wholesome foods from the start, lowers the chance of a child turning their nose up at them later on.

The article, published in Nutrition Bulletin last month, highlights a 2012 Infant Feeding Survey, which found that only seven per cent of British parents start complementary feeding with vegetables.

Several studies are cited which suggest this kind infant menu is ‘not high on the agenda for UK parents’.

Some 58 per cent of parents in one survey said they used commercial baby foods ‘which can be sweet, composite foods that are unlikely to encourage liking for individual vegetable flavours’.

Referring to cultural differences across Europe, the review cites Euro-Growth, a large longitudinal study of European infant complementary feeding practices, which found that vegetables were the most common type of first foods offered by parents in Germany.

But in the UK, Ireland, Spain and Italy at least two other types of foods tended to be introduced first. These were typically fruit, cereal or bread.

The review, called Complementary feeding: Vegetables first, frequently and in variety, comments, ‘The main predictor of fruit and vegetable intake is enjoyment of these foods.’

The challenge, however, is that ‘Humans are born innately preferring sweet, salty and umami flavours over those that are bitter or sour’, with the latter properties being morecommon in veggies.

Sensitivity to these flavours is influenced by genetics and ‘this is the food group most often rejected especially by children’.

The report refers to evidence that despite these ‘innate factors’, the outlook is encouraging, and adds that food preferences ‘are also shaped by an individual's experience with food’.

While the author, Dr Lucy Chambers, concedes British parents ‘may be a long way from a “vegetable first”’ regime, parents ‘respond positively to advice on this approach’.

It adds, ‘The scientific evidence reviewed in this paper indicates that three approaches to complementary feeding can help establish vegetable liking in children: vegetables first, vegetables frequently and vegetables in variety.’

Parents should first introduce their infants, from around six months, to a variety of single vegetables on repeat occasions – with perseverance being the key.

They should make sure to offer one or more different types on a daily basis for at least two weeks, before foods such as fruit and baby rice are introduced.

The report concludes, ‘This is not only important from a nutritional perspective but is also essential for the continued development of food preferences that will promote consumption of a healthy, varied diet.

‘Cultural shifts in infant feeding practices in the UK, underpinned by changes to guidelines, will be needed if vegetables are to take centre stage during complementary feeding.’

The review records a conflict of interest, having been part-funded by organic baby food brand Ella’s Kitchen.

‘However, the content of the paper reflects the views of the author alone,’ it adds.

  • See our interview with Dr Lucy Chambers in next week's Nursery World.

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