Helping parents fight the veggie battle

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has focussed our minds on the role diet plays in supporting our health and wellbeing, with foods and nutrients supporting immune function taking centre stage.

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Helping parents fight the veggie battle

SS blog

Sara Stanner

Science Director

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has focussed our minds on the role diet plays in supporting our health and wellbeing, with foods and nutrients supporting immune function taking centre stage. This has made many parents more determined than ever to make sure their kids are getting plenty of fruit and veg in their diet. These foods contain essential vitamins and minerals, many of which are crucial for a healthy immune system and protecting against infections, as well as being useful fibre providers and having other health benefits. Various types and colours of fruits and vegetables contain different combinations of nutrients, so encouraging kids to eat a wide variety is important. Sounds easy but, whilst many youngsters enjoy the sweet taste of fruits, any nutrition professional will tell you that one of the most common questions they hear is ‘how can I get my child to eat more vegetables?’ And as a parent of a child who has shunned most veg I’ve put on his plate since the age of 2, I know just how frustrating mealtimes can be!

The early years are a really important period in this battle as initial exposures and experiences seem to be critical for acceptance of some foods, particularly bitter tasting veg, with potential to influence lifetime consumption. Getting pre-schoolers to eat and love vegetables is a challenge – many of us mistakenly resort to bribing kids or hiding fruit and veg - but research has shown that making vegetables more familiar is key to encouraging them to try and accept these foods from the start. So BNF has been delighted to be part of two exciting projects this year focussing on different strategies to support parents in this quest.

Working with Professor Marion Hetherington and her team at Leeds University, we have explored knowledge of, and attitudes to, complementary feeding with a particular focus on the ‘veg first’ message. Research has suggested that offering single vegetables on their own (especially those with bitter flavours like broccoli, cabbage, kale, spinach, French beans) during the first two weeks or so of complementary feeding (either pureed or as finger foods) can help little ones get accustomed to their taste and possibly steer them towards a lifelong preference for these foods. In focus groups, we were surprised by a high awareness of the ‘veg first’ message but many of the first-time mums reported weaning to be an overwhelming and worrying experience. Most mums also complained of inconsistent advice between the health professionals they had seen (especially about when they should start complementary feeding) and even from the same ones over time. So, we have also been holding discussions with health professionals, manufacturers, retailers and the out-of-home sector to look at how to best provide clearer messages around complimentary feeding in the future and make the ‘veg first’ message more accessible.

We have also been involved in See & Eat, a project funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Food* and led by Professor Carmel Houston-Price at the University of Reading, which has been developing free resources for parents to help them encourage pre-schoolers to eat less familiar veg. The project’s website www.seeandeat.org offers eBooks in English, Italian, Finnish, Polish, Dutch and French, as well as a range of evidence-based activities, including flash cards, guess-the-vegetable games and growing activities to help parents encourage children to try new veg and increase their liking of them. These have been developed based on research at Reading University showing that visual familiarity in the form of picture books can increase a child’s willingness to try and liking of vegetables. Toddlers encouraged to look at a picture book for just a few minutes every day for 2 weeks before introducing the food at home showed higher intake and liking of the vegetable than those who didn’t receive picture books. Parents also reported that introducing new or disliked veg was easier and more enjoyable for them if their child had seen a book about the food beforehand. Each book focusses on a different vegetable, with 24 types available so mums can choose one or more veg that they are keen to encourage their child to eat. The books are interactive and can be viewed and personalised, using audio, video and pictures, through the ‘Our Story 2’ app.  BNF is helping to raise awareness of these free resources and disseminate the evidence-base for their use. To this end, we recently hosted a webinar discussing practical ways to help young children eat more veg which is available here.

By exposing children to a wide variety of veg during the early stages of feeding, encouraging familiarity with these foods, modelling healthy eating behaviour, involving children in the growing and preparation of vegetables and presenting these foods as attractively as possible perhaps we can win the veggie battle after all or certainly make strides to increasing their intakes!

 

Useful links:

Helping children learn to love vegetables see here

Early years educational resources on vegetables see here 

Vegetable activities for parents of young children see here 

 

*This work has been funded by EIT Food, the innovation community on Food of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the EU, under the Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.

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