How can you get a child to eat Brussels sprouts?

Vici for research into children’s eating behaviour

26-04-2021

Everyone knows of a child who despises Brussels sprouts, cauliflower or kiwis. But why, actually? Is it the taste, the texture, the expectation that they have of them? Also, is there a way to get picky eaters to enjoy eating their vegetables and fruit? Sjaan Nederkoorn, professor of Cognitive Psychology, has received a Vici grant of 1.5 million to find out.

Nederkoorn is especially interested in the refusal of food. “We know that if you taste something more often, you start to like it.” But a child does have to try it first. “You can, of course, fight about it, but I understand that parents get tired of doing that.” Still, it is important that children learn to appreciate vegetables and fruit; a mere 16 per cent of Dutch adults eat at least 200 grams of vegetables a day. “We also know that children who are poor eaters, later on become picky eaters.” Old habits die hard.

The research consists of two parts. Firstly, Nederkoorn and her team are going to follow a group of children from the age of three until they are five years old. “That is the toughest phase, most children are easy eaters before that, and after that they slowly want to try new things.” In addition, the researchers want to carry out small experiments with another group of children. “To see if they accept vegetables and fruit more easily if we have them carry out certain tasks.”

Lumps in food

It is interesting, for example, whether it makes a difference how sensitive a child is to taste and texture. “We know that children often don’t like lumps in their food. It is really tougher for young children to swallow food. They don’t have as many molars as we do and their tongues are less well trained.” When it comes to taste, most children don’t like the bitter nuts. But some children are more sensitive to them than others. “They can taste better, for example. I think that those children also develop into being difficult eaters.”

In an experiment with the second group of children, they will be allowed to first discover the new food with their hands. “Do they get used to the texture of a slippery mushroom if they are allowed to touch it with their hands first?”

Take a risk

Another aspect is whether a child is inclined to try something new. “Some are susceptible to positive experiences; they are prepared to take a risk if there might be a reward, such as a tasty bite. Others focus on the negative experience. They are so afraid that something will taste bad, they are prepared to take the risk of missing out on something tasty.”

Then there are the expectations that a child has. Nederkoorn mentions a study in which adults were served a salmon mousse, but were told it was a strawberry mousse. “Then people find that disgusting. They didn’t expect the fishy taste.” Children make those kinds of mistakes too without being tricked. “They don’t have our experience and so can have very wrong expectations. We are going to test their knowledge. For example, in a game with a cartoon figure in a film that likes to eat carrots. Do they also give pureed carrots? As well as yellow and purple carrots? I think that children who think more in abstract terms, who can think more in general and are less focused on specific characteristics of food, can estimate better how something will taste and so are more inclined to try something.” 

Tips

Also, what do children look out for when they eat together with others? That will also be investigated.  “From literature on fear, it appears that people who are afraid of something pay more attention to what they are afraid of. A child who finds something awful, will pay more attention to children who also dislike that and pay less attention to friends who just eat it.”

Eventually, Nederkoorn hopes that the research produces tips that parents can apply. “That is why we chose vegetables and fruit, which is where the biggest health win can be gained.”

How can you get a child to eat Brussels sprouts?
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