Fruit and vegetables for fussy eaters – a new take
Working with 100+ parents of fussy eaters every year means a lot of conversations about fruit and veggies.
Generally, fresh produce, and especially the vegetables are the most challenging foods for picky eaters to tackle.
From an evolutionary point of view, this makes sense. Babies have a natural drive to eat the most calorie-dense foods, and these are often ones that are sweeter, rather than full of fibre, like the veggies!
I also believe it’s in the marketing too. I have seen first-hand how much of a difference it can make to acceptance in the way we position, offer, and talk about foods.
Recently I read an article that summarized research conducted in the US about the difference between the perception and consumption of fruit versus vegetables. It was fascinating!
It also made me think about how some of this information could be used to support children who do struggle to eat widely.
Fruit and vegetable survey
I’d love to summarise what the survey found and then analyse it through the lens of a Picky Eating Advisor!!
1. People’s perceptions of eating fruit and veg are very different. We often group them together, and yet the way the majority of people think about them is different.
This is definitely true of fussy eaters. Many children happily eat fruit but find veg challenging. Although I also know children who prefer vegetables to fruit.
2. People’s perception of why they eat vegetables is to be healthy. Whether to feel fitter or lose weight, it was all about the health benefits.
This got me thinking as societal pressure – whether we are an adult or a child – is around consuming vegetables as without them none of us will be as ‘healthy’.
That message is clearly communicated, and I feel is something that we all see more and more.
If we do have a child that finds eating vegetables difficult, it puts enormous pressure on us as the parent. Feeling that a child is missing out on valuable nutrients, or potentially energy reserves and the power to grow and develop properly is the stuff of nightmares.
But, from a psychological point of view, eating something because “we have to” is a very poor way to motivate anyone to eat vegetables and enjoy doing so.
I know that often the broccoli does suffer an image crisis at the table and that if parents are pushing their child to eat something, it’s more likely to be green than beige. But that pushing is not positive long-term.
Focus on eating the veg for health reasons generally works against us.
3. Fruit on the other hand was eaten as it was favourful and a joyful experience. It made people feel happy. Wow!
I have to admit that when I think about a bowl of strawberries, some juicy grapes or a ripe peach, it’s easier to feel excited and ‘treat’ than it would be if it was a plate of broccoli or some carrots.
Yes, I eat and enjoy most vegetables, but I don’t tend to dream about them!
Many parents of picky eaters are confused why their child happily munches on a new biscuit or other sweet food and yet struggles to even contemplate new dinner foods.
However, if a child has had good experiences eating dessert foods, their perception of a new version is that this too will be good. Looking forward to eating something also makes an enormous difference to whether we like it or not.
If we are looking at a plate of broccoli and thinking it will taste awful, it is very different from contemplating a chocolate cake that we expect to be delicious. The ‘treat’ element, eating something that is not always available can also contribute to this.
4. The people who reported they ate the fewest vegetables believed they needed to eat a lot and to have them in the ‘purest’ form, steamed or raw for them to feel successful.
This is a great point. Although I’m anti ‘hiding’ I am a huge proponent of making vegetables as easy to eat as possible.
If a child struggles, at the moment, to eat vegetables on their own then it is not a ‘fail’ if they will only eat them if they are mixed into a smoothie or a muffin or some mince.
In fact, mixing vegetables into other foods is an excellent way to increase the number of vegetables eaten, the flavour of other foods and the nutrient count of a dish.
My advice for anyone wanting a child to eat more vegetables, is to serve them more often – yes, even for those who don’t eat any!
Similarly, if I think of many vegetables steamed, I will eat them, but it doesn’t exactly get me wildly enthused. However, roasting them so they are sweeter, crispier or a little charred and they suddenly seem a whole lot more appealing.
My boys went from eating a floret to a whole head of broccoli in one sitting when I went from steamed to fried. Yes, frying in butter may be a little less ‘healthy’ by some metrics but:
i) Looking forward to something is a huge positive on so many levels
ii) The taste. Oh, the elevation in taste!
iii) The volume eaten tripled.
What can we do to make the veggies more of a hero? If that’s butter or honey or drowning in ketchup (or even choc sauce), then that’s okay.
5. People also felt that their biggest barriers for eating vegetables was the time taken to prepare them and the taste.
This produces arguments that are similar to the point above, but I did want to discuss time.
For any of us, the easiest option is often the most palatable. If we are rushed and energy poor, the last thing we want to do is spend a lot of time preparing and cooking food.
But two things spring to mind:
i) Often our perception is that veggies are a faff and will take a lot of time, but it’s not always the case.
Chopping raw carrot batons, steaming some beans, slicing some tomatoes, or throwing some sweet potato in with the roast takes a matter of minutes.
Top tip. Overcooking so we have something to serve on successive days makes cooking a whole less time-consuming. Broccoli from the night before for lunch is super quick!
ii) Making things easy and available encourages veggies to be eaten for us as well as for our children. Top tip for teens – they generally take the path of least resistance so making things as easy as possible makes wins more likely.
If baby carrots are washed and ready to go with some dip next to them then it’s simple to grab and enjoy and may stave off the other snack foods.
6. People who ate the most fruit, ate it not just as is, but had on cereal, in tacos or in salads, for example, as well.
Which backs up the argument for serving vegetables in multiple ways and in different dishes.
Those who ate a lot of fruit also ‘craved’ fruit. Whereas those who ate it infrequently, tended to crave other sweet foods.
The foods we eat regularly, and therefore become familiar with, are those that we are most comfortable with. If these are full of natural sugars like fruit rather than the uber sweetness of dessert-type foods, then that is what we become used to.
If we have a child who is comfortable with fruit, the best way to get more eaten is by ‘crowding in’. Serving more so it takes up space and there is less room for other things.
Thinking through this, my key take-aways are:
i) The more we look forward to a food and have a positive perception about it, the more likely we are to eat it and to enjoy it.
If we have a fussy eater then creating this, as best as possible is a great goal.
ii) The more we serve a fruit or vegetable and incorporate it into meals or snacks, the more it gets eaten. In turn this leads to more desire for those foods – bonus!
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/