It’s the age-old conundrum — how to get fussy eaters to enjoy their greens. Now scientists say they’ve come up with the secret trick to get your kids eating sprouts
- Sprouts were this week voted the nation’s favourite green vegetable in a survey
- But Clover Storud says her children are still fussy when it comes to it
- Study found that children liked veg more after 15 lessons in mindful eating
Last Christmas Eve, in between wrapping presents and preparing a plate of mince pies and sherry for the man in red, I lovingly prepared a plate of Brussels sprouts, cooked with bacon and butter, to have with roast gammon.
My six-year-old son, Dash, eyed the food suspiciously: ‘Mum, I am not eating that!’ I may as well have put poison in front of him and his siblings — Lester, four, Evangeline, eight, Dolly, 17, and Jimmy, 20.
Copying Dash, Lester pushed his plate away, too, whining that I am horrible for having cooked food with vegetables.
Sprouts were this week voted the nation’s favourite green vegetable, according to a Waitrose study, but I’ve a suspicion they didn’t ask children. My eldest, Jimmy, loves them now, but it’s taken almost two decades to get to that point.
Sprouts were this week voted the nation’s favourite green vegetable, according to a Waitrose study, but Clover Storud (pictured with Dash, six, Evangeline, eight and Lester, four) suspects they didn’t ask children
And it’s not just Christmas sprouts. My youngest three can be as fussy as the most demanding restaurant critic. They’ll eat mountains of pasta, cereal and toast, but broccoli has been judged ‘too green’, oranges rejected as ‘too tangy’, apples are ‘too hard’ and bananas ‘too fluffy’.
It’s a battle I’ve fought in vain, on and off, for 20 years. But while some weary parents give in to their young ones’ demands for a beige diet, I’ve one last trick up my sleeve — mind control.
No, not hypnosis, but a clever new system of training your kids to eat mindfully that’s been developed by researchers from Purdue University in the U.S. state of Indiana.
They found children as young as three were more likely to think about fruit and vegetables in a positive way if they did two things: first, played games with them (like the tray memory game, or a stop-go game with different-coloured veg for traffic lights) and secondly, snacked on them while concentrating on what they looked, smelled and felt like.
Results have been encouraging. After 15 lessons in mindful eating, says lead researcher Professor Sara Schmitt, children liked veg more and had better self-control (ie. spat it out less) than a group who didn’t get the lessons.
After 15 lessons in mindful eating children liked veg more and had better self-control (ie. spat it out less) than a group who didn’t get the lessons
It’s not a snap-your-fingers Mary Poppins approach. ‘Children need to practise mindfulness regularly in order to see its effects on self-regulation,’ says Professor Schmitt, explaining that her experiment took place over five weeks. But I’m prepared to do almost anything for family harmony at the festive table.
Before I go off to try her methods, Professor Schmitt advises me to keep my expectations age-appropriate, suggesting I use props to first teach Lester and Dash some deep breathing exercises, which are important in mindfulness. ‘Rocking an animal to sleep on a child’s belly can help children develop a greater understanding of and ability to concentrate on the breath,’ she says. I eye the hamster thoughtfully, but she means a soft toy, not a real one.
We start with one of the ‘lessons’ — making a salad together. In the research, it was an ambitious rocket and tomato salad dressed with olive oil, but we start with some humble cucumber chopping.
Clover (pictured) was pleased scientists say they’ve come up with the secret trick to get your kids eating sprouts
Dash has so much fun, we then graduate to making a mess of slicing tomatoes, which piques the interest of Lester, who has his head in a box of Lego. ‘It’s fun playing with food,’ he declares ten minutes later, though starts retching when I suggest he should try eating it.
Usually Dash won’t eat raw vegetables either, but he concedes to several pieces of cucumber and half a tomato, previously dismissed as ‘too slimy’. This feels like a significant breakthrough and I’m absolutely delighted, though do my best to mute it.
Galvanised by this early response, I decide to enlist Dash and Lester into helping me make a salad every evening, encouraging them to come up with ideas for it.
While it can often be impossible for busy working mums to include the children in cooking — while simultaneously testing spellings, advising on A-level coursework, and discussing university plans — a simple salad feels achievable.
Grating, I discover, is a very good game and leads to taste-testing of carrots and beetroot, occasionally dressed with a little grated finger. I even manage to get them to eat a bit of raw sprout in a basic coleslaw.
Wxpert guide to mind control
By Charlotte Stirling-Reed – a child nutrition expert for children’s furniture brand Stokke.
- Remove the pressure. You can’t force little ones to eat, so instead practise plenty of role modelling.
- Eating foods such as sprouts in front of them is more likely to produce the results you want. Children learn what to eat from watching their parents, so practise what you preach and make sure you — and other family members — enjoy a variety of vegetables.
- Christmas is the perfect time to build familiarity with some less eaten foods, such as sprouts. Along with chocolates and crisps, try to have bowls of less well accepted items out as snacks.
- Sticker charts can help get children tasting something ‘new’ and can be a fun way to get them experiment.
- Make meals fun! Family-style buffets can take the pressure off eating and make some of these foods more enjoyable.
I start to feel smug, and turn to child nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed, weaning consultant to Joe Wicks, for a bit of psychological background on picky eaters like mine.
‘Picky eaters are more likely to want things that are plain and less likely to have a signature flavour,’ she says. ‘When trying to get children to eat more, parents often try things like distraction, but that takes away from the importance of eating. Mindfulness can help them to come back to viewing food as something that’s important.
‘Most children go through a phase of picky eating, but, it’s never too late to try to encourage fussy eaters to eat more.’
Just 18 per cent of UK children aged five to 15 eat their recommended five portions of fruit and veg a day, according to NHS figures, so many of us could benefit from techniques that work.
My smugness does not last long, however. Salad duty works on raw carrot but not, it turns out, on the cooked version. Trying to coax a tiny disc of it into Lester’s mouth produces the usual clamped-shut jaw, and when I present him with a minuscule floret of steamed broccoli, he gives me what can only be described as a look of fear and loathing.
I decide to try a new activity and put different fruit and vegetables on a tray in front of the boys. I ask them to describe each piece, smell it and really think about what it is. The next part of the game involves hiding the vegetables under a cloth and then getting the kids to remember what’s there, but the novelty wears off within minutes. The boys are happy to do it a few times to humour me, but then start running away every time the dreaded ‘veg tray’ is pulled out.
Instead, we try mindful eating itself, where you focus on the act of tasting and consuming different vegetables ‘in the present moment’, really concentrating on every sensory aspect.
Evangeline wants to play this and gets it quickly. I watch delightedly as her tolerance turns to desire for beans, broccoli, carrots and even a bit of spinach. Amazingly, she no longer calls anything ‘too spicy’ just because she doesn’t fancy it and is more aware of specific, individual tastes.
In the boys’ case, it’s more of an ongoing project, I fear — but one that’s showing definite promise. Overall, the amount of vegetables and fruit Dash and Lester are eating has increased. They are more willing to try different vegetables, even if it’s just a little bite, and I feel more confident about putting it in front of them without provoking that dreaded retch.
Above all, what mindfulness has done, together with the salad-making, is remove a mental block to the idea of eating vegetables. The default response to a runner bean is no longer ‘yuck!’, tears or a flat-out no.
But there are still certain limits. Cabbage. Courgette. Peas. How stressed should I be about them? Jimmy, 20, was just like his little brothers once, and now he wolfs everything down.
Yes, of course, we must try to help them eat healthily as little ones, but I’m sure they’ll get there.
Today at least, as they help me prepare a winter slaw, it feels like I’m winning. And as for that huge bowl of deliciously buttered sprouts with bacon I’m planning for the main event tomorrow — I’m confident they’ll try a bite or two. They may not like them, but they’ll try them — that will do for now.
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