Suspected reason that kids usually hate vegetables

by Andrew Vlahos1 min read27th Feb 202121 comments

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Here is a common vegetable preparation method in U.S. suburban homes.

Step 1: cut it up

Step 2: boil them in water until the flavor and texture is gone.

Step 3: Serve them without any kind of seasoning, or mixed with another food that could provide flavor and texture. Alternatively, put salt and pepper on them so that all vegetables just taste like salt and pepper.

Step 4: Tell the kids that eating a pile of bland mush with each meal is needed for being healthy.

 

In high school, me and several other people made the surprising discovery that if you eat vegetables raw, they actually taste alright, and some (like celery) even taste good enough to just snack on plain. Plus, there are things like stir-fry that make vegetables taste great.

I know this was common where I grew up. Do enough other people have similar experiences that raising knowledge of this is a great way to increase healthy eating?

 

Edit: after viewing the comments, this does not seem like the main reason.

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[epistemic status: i have formal education in nutrition, and this is remembered impressions i got from professors/experts, but may not be correct, and is almost certainly simplified and lacking in nuance]

In our parents' generation, boiling or steaming was considered the most healthy way to prepare vegetables: fat and salt were the enemy, and especially steaming left the vitamins in (rather than allowing water soluable ones to leach into the cooking water). 

Our parents cooked vegetables in this way because they learned it was the healthiest and they wanted us to be healthy.

Nowadays the nutrition Powers That Be have acknowledged that yes, steamed broccoli is a little healthier than roasted broccoli or broccoli sauteed in garlic oil, but steamed broccoli only tastes okay while roasted broccoli and sauteed broccoli are both damn delicious (epistemic status: broccoli is my favourite vegetable). The wisdom from on high is now that vegetables should be cooked in appealing ways, and the small loss in nutrients is nothing compared with the large gain in flavour which encourages people to eat vegetables which then means that people are less likely to eat e.g. big macs and tater tots. 

For your data: I can tell you that my 5yo doesn't predictably like veggies steamed, stir-fried, roasted, sauteed, flame-broiled, "riced", or even pan fried in bacon fat with garlic. He is much more likely to eat them raw, but it's super hit-or-miss even then. When presented with a new vegetable, there's a (medium-low) chance his curiosity alone will compel him to try it iff we make a big deal about eating it ourselves and how much we enjoy the thing.

This is a complete turn-around from a couple years ago when you couldn't get him to taste a protein source on purpose. Feeding a small child is hard! You'd think they'd want to eat whatever you're eating (especially known vegetables!) by default so they, you know, don't starve! Our current strategy is to make meals with several, varied components and require that he at least taste each thing on the basis that he might like it this week. This does not often meet with his approval, but at least we know he eats a wide variety of foods.

I tend to agree that providing children with textureless, flavorless food is a good way to make them fussy eaters, though, as that was largely my experience growing up. [1] My parents tried to make "good" food, for sure, but the default still seemed to be just to get calories into the kids and presentation be damned so long as it wasn't actually offensive. It wasn't until college, when I started routinely choosing and cooking some meals for myself, that I discovered that food could actually be Interesting, for crying out loud! (And that I love vegetables, especially fresh and raw.) I'm trying to avoid that pattern for my own kid, but I'll admit he doesn't make it super easy. There must be more to it than just presentation.


[^1] On my proofreading pass, I noticed that I just got finished saying how hard it is to get kids (my kid, anyway) to eat anything on the regular, then I complained that when I was a kid, the food I was served just didn't seem interesting to me. There's probably something to be exploited there about finding what foods actually are interesting to my own kid, but his tastes change so fast I can't be sure that won't change between one instance of a particular meal and the next. We've tried asking him, but he doesn't seem to know any better than we do until the thing is right in front of him. We even let him help out in the kitchen, so he can give input on the preparation of the meal and have contact with each ingredient before it's on his plate, but still he often won't eat what he himself chose and cooked! (deep breath) PSA: Parenting is hard!

We even let him help out in the kitchen, so he can give input on the preparation of the meal and have contact with each ingredient before it's on his plate, but still he often won't eat what he himself chose and cooked

Haha, exactly the same with my 5yo daughter! Sometimes she even invents the food, I am like "actually, this might taste quite good", we cook it together, and then... only me and my wife eat it.

(The only successful invention I remember was couscous with canned fish.)

Let me add to your data: Kids' tastes vary. A lot.

My 8yo only likes a very small selection of vegetables since he was little. Best chance to get him to eat vegetables? In the shape of boring, textureless soups. Sometimes, reverse psychology helps better than expected. When we told him "This is for grownups, kids usually don't like this", he often would at least try the food and sometimes even like it.

Thinking about this, I might be on to something here. This might set expectations just right, whereas "Try this cauliflower, it's delicious" is destined to disappoint.

My 4yo on the other hand was exposed to unhealthy food at way younger age than my 8yo. Fast food, chocolate cake, salt pretzels, everything you shouldn't feed your kids at an early age. Now, she loves most kinds of vegetables and for dessert(!), she will prefer cucumbers, carrots, broccoli, and olives over most sweets (ice cream being the main exception here). With some kids, some parts of parenting are easy; and nobody knows why.

With some kids, some parts of parenting are easy; and nobody knows why.

It's just to drive you insane. 😉

I grew up in an American household eating home-cooked hybrid-but-largely-Chinese-influenced food. Basically every meal was a mix of protein (meat, tofu, or eggs) and vegetables over rice, which turns out to be plenty to work with. The thing that's always been weird to me about American food is that they serve you a giant slab of meat as your meal, and then everything else is sides, which leads to the whole "eat your vegetables" problem in the first place. In Chinese food the meat is always cut relatively small, and sometimes tiny. It's so mixed in with the vegetables that you wouldn't even consider eating the meat without the vegetables.

Also FWIW I prefer cooked vegetables over raw vegetables and always have. So your discovery is not universalizable.

I live in Slovakia, but I noticed that Asian restaurants are the only ones here that provide significant amount of vegetables with lunch. Everyone else either gives nothing by default (hey, if you really want vegetables, you can order them separately in a small bowl for an extra euro), or put a microscopically thin slice of cucumber on the side of the plate (and some of my colleagues are like "ewww... why did they put this in my meal?").

The thing that's always been weird to me about American food is that they serve you a giant slab of meat as your meal, and then everything else is sides, which leads to the whole "eat your vegetables" problem in the first place.

I think "American food" is a bit too diverse to generalize. You have your steaks and your meatloafs, but plenty of chilis, fajitas, stir fries, beef stews, soups with bits of meat in them, spaghetti-and-meatballs, chicken cut up and put-in-a-salad sort of thing, and plenty of other examples of meat "not in a big slab".

And yes, I would still consider stuff like Mexican-American, Chinese-American etc. food sufficiently "mainstream" in American culture that they are American food. Maybe most Americans don't eat those things every day, but they are parts of the culinary repertoire familiar to and used by them.

I have no idea of stats, but I bet most Americans of unspecified heritage would not find tacos, ground meat, stir fry meat, fajitas, chile, particularly exotic by any stretch and many Americans probably eat them, if not cook them themselves, a few times a week etc.

It's probably bad for you if you don't have a lot of meat in your meals, because then you won't get a lot of protein and will have weak muscles.

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Meat cut up small != small amounts of meat.

Ah, I misread that, sorry.

I am from Russia and I am surprised by what you list as typical examples of vegetables. I wonder what vegetables are popular in different parts of the world. Can you all, people from different countries, write the most popular veggies where you're at? I'll start.

I am from Moscow, Russia. I can't say for the entirety of Moscow, only for my family and friends. Here the most popular vegetables are BY FAR tomatos, cucumbers, potatoes, onion, and sweet peppers. People eat tomatoes, cucumbers, and sweet peppers raw either on their own with pepper and salt, or in all kinds of salads. Less popular veggies are eggplant, tsukini, cauliflower, carrots, garlic, green peas, sweet corn. Celery, spinach and broccoli are a little rare. Asparagus is very rare (and expensive).

I'm from Ukraine, and it's similar here (also, parsnip, radish, beetroot and pumpkin are among the most common things). A curious variation common in the villages but not in the cities is that if you grow it, you don't buy it. This often means that people in the city get theirs starting earlier in the season.

Personally I like them boiled, but it makes a big difference if you avoid overcooking them (especially important for things like broccoli), and only use a small amount of water so you can boil it right down rather than having to strain it away. I suspect this is worthwhile nutritionally, too.

(If you add more water than necessary, you can strain it out and drink it. With the right mix of vegetables, and provided it's not overly dilute, you've just made yourself a nice vegetable soup. I like doing this, but it's probably not so appealing to a child's palate.)

Children like it when I cook vegetables. If they're leafy greens like spinach then I stir-fry them with garlic and oil. If they're hearty vegetables then I roast them with salt, pepper and spices. I never boil them. I also ferment vegetables, which children do not like.

Your description of flavorless mush reminds me of my childhood in Eastern Europe. You would have seemingly randomly chosen vegetables boiled and combined into a mucky whole that tasted weird. Salt, pepper, sometimes sour cream or white vinegar were added. 

Only in my early 20s did I discover how great raw vegetables like carrots or cucumbers taste. Then I discovered hummus, then mustard/balsamic/nuts/cranberries/raisins. Just recently I rediscovered lettuce - who knew it tastes so good when it's fresh and crisp?

My pet theory is that most parents don't pay a lot of attention to cooking. It's something they must do to deliver nutrition to their offspring. This establishes defaults which don't work well for everyone and doesn't leave room for experimenting. I'm sure there are some people who love mush, but if you're a crispy-vegetable person in a family of mush-fans, you're out of luck. 

In former Czechoslovakia, there was an official list of recipes that restaurants were allowed to cook, during socialism. (To legally cook anything else, you had to ask for an official exception and get it approved.) That explains why some meals were not just horrible, but identically horrible across restaurants. The only tasty vegetable I remember from my childhood was fried cauliflower -- probably not very healthy.

I always preferred raw vegetables though not all of them. It seems to be common in my extended family to serve vegetables cut in slices or sticks for ready snacking. Many in my circle of friends do so too. Sometimes, more or less spicy dips are offered (which I don't like but which is easily ignored). My kids still ignore them mostly. Apples served the same way are gone quickly though.

I don't think this is enough to explain it: that isn't how vegetables were prepared in my house growing up, and I didn't enjoy them. I was willing to eat some raw vegetables if prodded, but my preferred level of vegetable consumption was none. Over time, as an adult, I've gotten myself to eat vegetables out of a sense of them being good for me, and at this point I do like them some?

Our two kids, ages five and six, have very different views on veggies. The younger one is willing to eat a pretty wide variety, including most ones that adults will eat, as long as there is no sauce or other strong flavoring. The older one has never liked vegetables, though has had periods in which she was willing to eat cherry tomatoes or sweet peppers.

We give our kids fruits and raw vegetables as snack -- mostly apple, tangerine, kohlrabi, blueberry. When the food is conveniently cut into small pieces and brought next to the toys or computer, it is rarely refused.