Children likely to eat many more vegetables if they see adults enjoying them, research shows

Trying to get children to eat their vegetables is the eternal struggle of any parent – but the key is in your own enjoyment, a study has found.

Adults who have positive facial expressions while eating vegetables may help kids consume more than double the amount they would otherwise, researchers have found.

Watching a parent eat and enjoy vegetables has previously been suggested by nutritionists as a tactic to encourage children to eat them too, but this study suggests that the method has a basis in science.

The team, from the College of Health and Life Sciences at Aston University, recruited 111 British children between the ages of four and six years old for the research.

They played each of them one of three videos. In two of the videos, the children were shown unfamiliar adults eating raw broccoli with either a positive or a neutral facial expression, while a third video, used as a control, was not food related.

They then gave the kids raw broccoli and used a seven-point scale from turning away from it to accepting and eating it.

Their intake of the vegetable was measured by the number of grams of raw broccoli consumed, and the number of "tastes" of the raw broccoli was also examined.

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They found that children who were shown video clips of adults enjoying eating broccoli had more tastes of the food and also ate, on average, more than twice as much in comparison with those in the control group, eating 11g rather than 5g.

Watching the video of the adults enjoying the food did not affect their likelihood to try an initial taste, the study found.

Katie Edwards, a PhD researcher at Aston University, said: "One explanation for the beneficial effect of positive facial expressions whilst eating could be that conveying food enjoyment gives the observer information about the safety and palatability of food.

"Raw broccoli was novel for most participants. Thus, children may have eaten more broccoli after watching adults enjoy eating it, because they believed it was enjoyable to eat."

The findings, published in the journal Appetite, could help children become more accepting of healthy but unpopular vegetables like raw broccoli, which most of the participants in the study had not tried before.

"Observing others enjoy a commonly disliked vegetable can encourage children’s tastes and intake of the vegetable," the study concluded.

Ms Edwards added: "Further work is needed to determine whether a single exposure to adults enjoying broccoli is sufficient and whether these effects are sustained over time."

Cooking with children and making sure food is served according to a routine can also encourage children to feel more comfortable eating their greens, experts say.

As well as providing them with better nutrition and energy, vegetable consumption among children is also linked to mental health, previous research has found, with the link particularly strong among older children.

A study of 9,000 children by the University of East Anglia (UEA), published in September, found that children with more fruit and vegetables in their diet had better mental wellbeing, with those who ate five or more portions each day doing the best.

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Dr Richard Hayhoe, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: "We found that eating well was associated with better mental wellbeing in children, and that among secondary school children in particular, there was a really strong link between eating a nutritious diet, packed with fruit and vegetables, and having better mental wellbeing."

Nutrition had as much or more of an impact on wellbeing as other factors such as witnessing regular arguing or violence at home, Dr Hayhoe added.

Despite the rising popularity of veganism and vegetarianism, the UK’s overall consumption of fruit and vegetables is going down, a report found last year.

Only one in three adults and just over one in 10 adolescents currently achieve the famous five-a-day target, the Food Foundation charity said.

"We need to be careful about assuming that plant-based or vegan diets automatically equate to more veg," it said.

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