How to Get Kids to Eat Vegetables: Use Repetition, Rewards, and Role Modeling

Getting kids to eat healthy is important, as healthy habits start young.

It can be hard to introduce your kids to new foods and to get them to like them.

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Are your kids picky eaters? Do you have no luck at all trying to get them to eat certain foods, especially healthy ones like vegetables? It can be hard to introduce your kids to new foods and to get them to like them. Kids are infamous for refusing to even come near certain foods that they are determined not to like. But getting kids to eat healthy is important, as healthy habits start young. And fortunately, it may be more straightforward than you might think. Research shows that the key to working with fussy eaters it to use repetitive exposure, rewards, and role modeling. 

Three simple steps can fix fussy eating

The journal Appetite published a study in April 2015 that looked at 115 children two to four years old. The study focused on three different strategies used to help kids to change food preferences:

  1. Repetitive exposure. This strategy is based on a body of evidence showing that if a child tries a food enough, and positive experiences are associated with trying the food, the child often comes to accept and even enjoy that food. Studies show that somewhere between five and 15 exposures to a food may be needed to get a child to like the food.
  2. Rewards. Non-food rewards have been shown to be effective at helping children like foods. Rewards like a sticker, a small toy, or social rewards (i.e., praise) are a good way to help a child learn to try, and eventually enjoy, new foods.
  3. Role modeling. Children often learn through observation. Researchers know that children who watch their parents eat and enjoy healthy foods will eat more of those foods themselves. It makes the child more likely to try an unfamiliar food, and more likely to prefer those foods.[1]

Use all three for best results

Previous studies have found success using each of the three strategies,[2] but the results of the new study show that a combination of all three of the strategies, rather than just one or two at once, is most effective at changing a child’s food preferences.[1]

In the study, each parent identified one vegetable that their child disliked. They were then instructed to implement one of four interventions, each using a particular combination of the three strategies listed above. One group used repeated exposure only, one used role modeling and repeated exposure, one used rewards and repeated exposure, and one used all three (repeated exposure, rewards, and role modeling). A fifth group used none of the above and served as a control. The child’s intake and preference of the previously disliked vegetable was analyzed before and after the intervention.[1]

After the intervention period, the number of children who rated the vegetable as “yummy” was highest (60%) in the group that used repetition, rewards, and role modeling. Children in that group also ate significantly more of the vegetable after the intervention; children who were exposed to all three strategies at once at an average of 4g of the vegetable after the study, as compared to only 0.6 g before the intervention.[1] The results suggest that a combination of all three strategies is by far the most effective option.

Start young

Healthy habits start young, so you’ll want to get started training your children to like healthy foods now. If you are at the end of your rope trying to get your kids to eat foods like vegetables, try out the three strategies listed above.

Remember them as the Three R’s: repetition, rewards, and role modeling. First, use repetition, exposing your child to the food multiple times. Next, find a non-food reward to encourage your child when they eat the food. Finally, be a good role model by eating the foods and showing how much you enjoy them. These three steps will help your child to try new foods, and hopefully come to enjoy them.

We have an extensive collection of blogs on children’s health. Read some of the following blogs for tips on keeping your family healthy:

Share your experience

Do you have, or have you had a picky eater? What are you best tips for getting kids to try and enjoy new foods? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

[1] Appetite. 2015 Apr;87:215-22.

[2] J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014 Jun;114(6):881-8.

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UHN Staff

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