Home Healthy Eating Why Your Kids (And Probably You Too) Don’t Like Veggies

Why Your Kids (And Probably You Too) Don’t Like Veggies

by Erika Nicole Kendall

From It’s Not About Nutrition:

Many scholars believe toddlers have a natural impulse to reject foods because it keeps them alive.Here’s the theory:

Toddlers are particularly vulnerable to eating poisonous foods because of two conditions: their newfound mobility frequently puts them out of momma’s protective reach, and they have a natural desire to put things into their mouths. Making toddlers reluctant to eat unfamiliar foods is Mother Nature’s way of solving this problem.

I don’t buy it.

1) This theory can’t explain why a child would reject a familiar food; one they’ve learned is not poisonous; one that’s already been cleared for consumption by mom.

2) Anyone who has ever been around a toddler knows these kids will put anything into their mouths—as long as it seems dangerous, weird, or something that would freak their parents out.  Dirt. Flowers. Legos.  But healthy vegetables? No way.

Here’s what I think (and it’s backed up by research).

Toddlers reject vegetables because other things taste better.

Of course control, developmental and personality issues also play a role. But answer this: How long after your child started eating solids did you switch from plain Cheerios to Honey Nut Cheerios?

Or start serving up Brown Sugar Cinnamon Oatmeal instead of plain oatmeal?

When did you trade in your child’s plain yogurt for vanilla, blueberry, or those delightful yogurt tubes? Introduce apple juice? Goldfish crackers? Chicken nuggets?

Around the time your child started rejecting vegetables?

Baby Food is bland, and it all—fruits, vegetables, cereals—taste basically the same.  In comparison, toddler food is full of flavor.  In fact, it gives kids a “flavor-hit.”

Researchers recently discovered:

Kids who eat foods high in sugar, salt and fat—the basic “Child-friendly”  diet—end up seeking out these kinds foods in order to achieve a “flavor-hit.”  They’re going for the high!

Child-friendly foods may seem bland and boring to you, but these items are loaded with sugar, salt and fat. And kids like them!   Read The Truth About “Child-Friendly” Foods.

That’s probably why the old standby, pasta with butter and parmesan, is such a success:  Think salt and fat.

“Flavor-hit” foods train your kids to like junk (corn chips, not corn; cheese puffs, not cheese, and strawberry ice cream, not strawberries).  “Flavor-hit” foods never taste like broccoli.  (But they do taste like french fries!)

In other words, the basic “child-friendly” toddler diet trains your kids’ taste buds away from vegetables.  

The way to increase vegetable consumption—or to stop the downslide— is to consciously manage the flavors you feed your kids.

Don’t think about nutrients as much as flavors, and don’t overload your kids with sugar, salt, and fat.  That was the message in my post Why Toddlers Don’t Eat Vegetables.

The reason is clear: Research shows that when kids eat a diet filled with sugar, salt, and fat they want more of these flavors.  It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, and manufacturers are happy to oblige.

In all fairness, INAT is a blog that mostly covers food in regards to children, but I think this applies to “big people,” too. I think it’s safe to say that, in about 85% of the e-mails I receive that reference some kind of “I don’t like vegetables” line of thinking, there’s always a “because they taste bad!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” phrase in ’em. And while it’s one thing to manage your children’s intake of fruits and veggies this way, it’s another thing entirely to approach the situation this way as an adult.

Our children don’t know the ramifications of the decisions they make – my four year old doesn’t understand that trying to climb to the top of the entertainment center doesn’t mean she’ll find the treasure (?!) she’s looking for, and if she did find said treasure I’d be taking it from her anyway – which is why we, as parents, manage their decisions for them. I know she needs to brush her teeth, lest we be eternally accosted by that toddler breath. I know she needs to be fully clothed in long sleeves and pants when she goes bike riding, or she’ll scrape herself up. I also know she needs to eat her darn veggies, or she’s gonna grow up with the scurvy that Spongebob and P!nk sing about.

As adults, though, we know what these diseases look like. We sometimes even know what they feel like. We understand the ramifications of eating poorly, and we also know that we have to help ourselves…because we don’t have parents who are still interested in managing our adult affairs. (At least, I hope not.)

“Tasting bad[ly]” is relative to whatever else you’ve tasted and whatever tastes you’re attached to. Does cauliflower taste badly compared to cheesecake? Absolutely. Hell, cauliflower tastes bad compared to broccoli, if you ask me. That doesn’t change the fact that it provides my body what it needs, and it has a distinct taste and texture that I should figure out how to make work for my taste buds. And if I’m at a point in my life where I don’t want to eat the things I need because the things I want and like taste better, then it sounds like it’s time for me to cut my intake of the things I want and like so that I can stop playing around.


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Shaka August 5, 2011 - 10:18 AM

I absolutely agree. I’ve moved towards a system that’ll have my son learning to enjoy the taste of veggies and whole foods. I grind up one grain oatmeal instead of using rice cereal, I puree my own babyfood (heavy veggies and light fruits for now) so he can be accustomed to the taste. I, myself, love veggies served unseasoned (mostly uncooked) straight up and I plan on running my household that way.

JoAnna August 5, 2011 - 12:26 PM

I occaisionally babysit my 1 year old cousin who wants to eat what the adults eat. Usually her mother drops her off with jars of babyfood, and formula. The last time, she grabbed the wrong bag and I had only formula and diapers so I had to feed her what I was eating. We had fresh peaches, scrambled eggs with broccoli and mushrooms, multi grain toast with homemade jam for lunch and pan fried fish, stir fried broccoli and quinoa for dinner. I tried to give that child a lone jar of baby applesauce I found in the cupboard and she refused to eat it after the first spoonful. But she ate another half peach. When her mother picked her up, she ate a plate of leftovers and complained that the baby was going to fuss eating baby food for the next few days because she doesn’t cook the way I do. She loves thawing out frozen food to pop via the microwave and then adding Lawry’s seasoning to “doctor it up”. ‘sigh’. Not my child. But I hope I can influence her and her child as they grow older with some cooking lessons. It’s not hard to cook well seasoned, flavorful healthy food!

Amanda August 5, 2011 - 5:55 PM

In all fairness, I couldn’t blame any toddler going from a diet of pureed peas in a jar to Cheez-Its for a lasting wariness of all things vegetable. My mother used to laugh at me but I insisted on doctoring all the jarred baby food (when I fed her jarred baby food, it wasn’t a huge staple) with things like finely minced garlic, pepper, chili powder, Worcestershire sauce. Tiny amounts but really it helps make veggies more palatable to them later on I think. And things like hummus and labneh and pureed avocado and chopped up tomatoes with basil and garlic can be fed to them from a very young age. My Dad (he’s Arab and this isn’t so unusual for Arabs) would gently chew things for her and feed it to her that way – we call it bird feeding. It’s not for people who freak about those sorts of things but it enabled her to eat almost anything when she was very little. If you give an infant/baby nothing but bland, jarred peas when you give them their first french fry the kid would have to be crazy to want to go back to the bland peas IMO.

milaxx August 5, 2011 - 7:01 PM

Agreed. I’ve been out of school for quite some time, but my undergrad is in child development. One of the things we learned was that when children are developing they will gravitate towards flavors that hit those major pleasure senses on the tastebuds: salt, sugar.

Kay August 6, 2011 - 7:01 AM

I think the reason so many vegetables ‘taste bad’ is ‘cos they have all the life boiled out of them. My mom used to do that a lot when I was a kid before she knew better and to this day if its too soft a texture I can’t can’t eat it. Cauliflower is a good example of this, boiled to softness it makes me want to retch, even if it is smothered in cheese… but raw? I am IN there and happy as Larry.
My nephew is pretty good with veg as my sister eats super healthy – she doesn’t force him to eat if he doesn’t like it, just finds an equivalent healthy veg and then tries again another time. There’s not much he doesn’t like right now and she knows from me that tastes can change. Sprouts, zucchini, aubergine, cabbage, kale – all things I would have turned my nose up against as a kid – i really like them now 🙂

Shante August 8, 2011 - 12:24 PM

OMGEEE!!! I need you in my home LIKE RIGHT NOW! My nephew came to visit last week and my mom went food shopping for him and bought all kinds of junk. Se bought kool aid drink pouches, “fruit” snacks, neon color yogurt, yogurt tubes, ice pops, some weird brand of “chicken” nuggets, hamburger helper and some other junk. Did she buy him veggies no, did she buy him fruit no. Why because everything she bought it kid food and since she had four she knows how to feed kids. WTF!! Idk how to get in it her head that she should be feeding him properly since his mother feeds him sonic, mc donalds, burger king, soda, gum and ice tea. This kid is three years old. When she gives him juice I grab it and cut it with water. I am going crazy and don’t know what to do.

Amy F. August 8, 2011 - 4:34 PM

Hey! As the mother of three sons – one very picky (will hardly eat anything that “grew from the ground”), two not at ALL picky (they’ll eat EVERYTHING I make: asparagus, mushrooms, onions, spinach, you name it), I want to assure you that there is a physiological reason for toddlers and young children not enjoying their greens. They are born with a higher concentration of taste buds (papillae) and with a heightened sensitivity to sweetness and bitterness. Our tastebuds “dull” as we age. Could it be that veggies really don’t taste that great and our taste dulls just enough to “grow into” the flavors as we age? 🙂 Could be …
Here is an excerpt from an article on the subject off of a physician’s website:

“Food is a highly emotional topic for adults. We use it to celebrate our triumphs and to console ourselves in our times of loss. We “break bread” with others as a symbol of peace and hospitality. To leave food on a plate is seen as a sign of rejection in some families and an indication that the host has provided enough in others.

Children, however, share few of these cultural assumptions. A preschooler who adamantly refuses to eat his vegetables may be telling you more about his physiology than anything else. While many adults consider such pickiness a sign of being spoiled—especially since rejecting food at all is, for most of the world’s children, an unimaginable luxury—researchers have found that there are biological and developmental reasons behind young children’s occasionally peculiar dining habits. Also, parents who become upset and blow these behaviors out of proportion may unintentionally make their children’s eating problems worse.

Children taste things differently than adults do. Their taste buds are generally more sensitive and may be overwhelmed by the spiciness of a dish that their parents would consider intolerably bland. Young children especially avoid bitter tastes, such as those found in dark green vegetables. This aversion may be one reason for our species’ survival, since many poisonous plants taste bitter.

Also, toddlers quickly recognize that both ends of their gastrointestinal tract are effective weapons in their ongoing battle to assert their independence from their parents. (There’s at least one study showing that finicky toddlers were also more difficult to toilet-train and kicked up more of a fuss when they were put to bed.) To a two-year-old, the act of refusing to eat what his mother is trying to cajole into his mouth may be much more important that the taste of the food in question.” (Kudner)

Anyhoo … thought you might find this interesting. It goes on to say that simply putting any new food on a child’s plate 8-10 times (in a fairly small span of time) will, generally, lead them to eventually try it. Bribery never worked for me anyway …

Danni September 16, 2011 - 11:39 PM

I wonder how much what u eat while pregnant has to do with flavors your baby accepts or rejects. My daughter, since she could eat table food, has always gone for her vegetables on her plate first. I’ve com across maybe one vegetable (brussels sprouts) that she’s ever rejected. I eat a vegetarian diet but allow her to decide–for the most part–what she eats. Also, making your own baby food at home might help extend a child’s palate as well…

Gabrielle September 17, 2011 - 1:55 AM

I sooo agree at one point it US who switched our kids food. My pediatrician is old school and she doesn’t like baby jar she is telling me if you can eat yourself why feed your baby with it. I bought some when I first introduced solid food it tasted awful. I made the decision to cook for the best. However I do cook with a twist I don’t put pure salt but a cube maggi half of it in the water so it has taste. My 14months old son eats everything he already tasted ice cream or sweet stuff BUT i make sure it occasional and only a tiny amount and he still eats his veggie because they taste so good the way I cook them ( even people who come visit and eat them are like I understand why he eats them so easily because it is good.)

foreverloyal January 28, 2012 - 9:58 PM

It really IS so important to start your kids off eating real food. My kids do love the junk, but they know that it’s a “once in awhile” kind of thing. The daily menu is organic veggies, organic/free-range/grass fed meat, organic fruits and 1 or 2 servings of complex carbs in a day.

If they don’t get accustomed to living on junk we don’t have to work hard to switch them over to real food as they get older.

Jennifer May 21, 2012 - 5:44 PM

Time to clean out your taste buds! Much like your closet, taste buds accumulate junk (or at least the penchant for junk food) that needs to occassionally be cleaned out! Also, by nature we desire foods that are luxurious because of our primordial drive for survival.

Yes, we crave fats because they are a macronutrient that is KEY for survival. So is protein. The macronutrient that is NOT essential to life: Carbhohydrates. It’s a fact that we can live without carbs. However, they provide a surge of quick energy, so your genius of a body decides to include them in the “tastes good,” category because your body CAN use them for energy, or store them later in the event of famine/starvation (ie: carbohydrates easily accumulate in fat stores). However, our ancestry and our DNA tells us that carbohydrates were scarce in prehistoric times.

Imagine you were a cavewoman: you’d enjoy the fattiest parts of the animal you just hunted and killed because they would provide the most nutrition. You would also enjoy any berries, or wild fruits that you found because in the absense of anything sweet, they would be the cavewoman equiavalent of candy. If you, said cavewoman, came across a gummy bear, or a donut: you’d most likely spit them out because they would taste overtly sweet, artificial and bad.

Go back to your roots and do the same for your children. Spend a week eating only clean, organic, unprocessed foods (grass fed beef, wild caught fish, free range eggs, air chilled, free range chicken, organic veggies) and include organic fruits, just 2 servings a day if you are sedentary, 3-4 if you are active (don’t make fruit the replacement for bad carbs: in excess, fruit can be bad for you as well).

You will be AMAZED at how delicious a cherry tomato can taste at the end of that week. A pistachio tastes luxurious, the fat on a piece of salmon tastes like butter melting on your tongue. Do this favor for your children as well. From the DAY they pop out of you screaming for mother’s milk (and trust me, breast milk tastes AWFUL to an adult) they understand what nutrition is. WE ARE THE ONES WHO SCREW THEM UP! Feed your child home-made baby food (http://wholesomebabyfood.momtastic.com/) and stop buying processed, sugar laden junk food for them. Most packaged, processed foods these days are chemically enhanced to TRICK our taste buds and our bodies into submission (ie: they taste like they have high quality nutrition, so our bodies crave them; but in reality, they have additives, preservatives, even plastics, byproducts, carcinogens and chemical enhancers that boost their flavor). Nature doesn’t do that: she’s subtle…her flavors aren’t chemically ehhanced, they are clean and beautiful IF your taste buds aren’t broken.

Do yourself this favor and you and your children will not only ENJOY healthy food, you will reap amazing benefits. Stick to organic veggies and small amounts of fruit, wild caught fish, free range chickens and eggs, grass fed beef, pasture raised butter, organic olive oil, even macadamia nut oil, coconut oil, etc. for your cooking sources, small amounts of salt and pepper and vinegar to flavor dishes. Within a week, you will taste flavors you couldn’t fathom existed in the simplest of foods (HELLOO organic fuji apple when you haven’t had candy for weeks…amazing) and you will probably lose weigh too.

cptacek November 22, 2013 - 11:00 AM

I looked into something called “baby led feeding” (or “baby led weaning, which is what they call it in England, but that doesn’t mean weaning them from breastmilk or formula) where starting around 6 months, you allow them to start eating real food without grinding it up for them. You start letting them play around with food, but for me, my adage was “food before one is just for fun” so I didn’t freak out if he didn’t really eat anything. I continued breastfeeding until 22 months, so he was getting all the nutrition he needed from me, and he could explore food and see if he like it or not. We never forced him to eat, he could eat or not eat, and if he wanted seconds, he could have it, if he didn’t like something, he didn’t have to have it.

You start with long thin sticks of food like carrots, long pieces of chicken/steak, etc. They can put it in their mouths, feel it with their tongues, and if it gets too far back, the gag reflex makes them spit it out. In 6 month old babies the gag reflex is much closer to the front of the mouth, so it teaches them how to handle real food in their mouth without choking. As they get better and better at it, you cut the pieces smaller and smaller, until they are eating real food without having to buy anything special and without having to mash it up. This makes meal time much easier, because you only have to make what you are going to eat, and then cut some up and put on their plate.

This means, if you are eating vegetables, they eat vegetables. If you are eating chips and salsa, they eat chips and salsa. So….it is important to pick what you eat so they get the right nutrition.

I also have a big garden, and this past summer, he was 2. He would pick tomatoes, broccoli and strawberries right off the plant and eat them standing there. He loves wax beans and green beans, squash, etc., cooked of course. You name it, he likes it.

I think not giving him baby food, not pressuring him to eat if he didn’t like it, breastfeeding, and not giving him Honey Nut Cheerios, rice cereal, etc., as his first foods helped him to not reject healthy food.

*of course there are some kids this won’t work for. You know your kid better than I know your kid, so do what you gotta do. But this is something I had never heard of before I had my child, and thought I would pass it along in case someone wants to investigate it for themselves.

Audrey September 16, 2014 - 2:18 PM

Thank you! My first child is coming in the beginning of this next year and I’m looking for good ways to help him/her eat real food! I’m definitely going to try this!

Diatta November 24, 2013 - 6:25 PM

I think children reject vegetables because we as parents and guardians may have some deep-down dislike for them and our children eat what we eat or are willing to prepare no? If we don’t eat brussel sprouts then more than likely our children won’t and if presented with the opportunity WON’T because it looks weird. But bring on anything beige (fries, chicken nuggets, apple sauce – with HFCS) and we are in LUCK!

I battle this with hubby because he grew up on straight garbage food (poptarts, hotdogs, etc) so that is what he feeds our children YET he claims they eat too much junk. Then stop buying the CHIPS – not rocket science – just common sense.

Great post.

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