Oct. 17, 2013 at 2:51 PM ET
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Using a game at home, parents can help their children learn to like vegetables, a new study shows.
Parents often struggle with children who refuse to eat their vegetables because they don't like the bitter flavors. This can lead to kids becoming picky eaters and not having a balanced diet.
"Parents are important because they choose the foods that come into the house and are served at meals. They are also role models," Jane Wardle told Reuters in an email. She worked on the study at the Health Behaviour Research Centre of University College London.
"However, when it comes to vegetables, even vegetable-loving parents can have children who won't eat them," Wardle added.
Past studies showed researchers and doctors can make kids more open to eating veggies by repeatedly offering them tastes followed by a reward. But that strategy requires several office visits, and not all parents of fussy eaters can get professional advice.
In the new study, Wardle and her colleagues found a similar process could be used by parents at home. They called the intervention Tiny Tastes.
The researchers recruited families of 3-year-old twins from England and Wales. Half the families were randomly selected to be in the Tiny Tastes group. They were sent the tasting game kits, which included booklets, reward stickers and a link to an online instruction video.
The booklets, stickers and instructions are now sold online in the UK for about £6, or $9.50. In this study, the kits were provided for free.
The rest of the families did not receive a kit and were used as a comparison group.
All families were asked to select one vegetable that each child disliked. They were instructed to perform a simple test that measured how much of that vegetable the child would eat at the beginning of the study and again, 14 days later.
For the next two weeks, families in the Tiny Tastes group offered children tastes of the selected vegetable every day. Kids could chose a sticker if they tried the vegetable.
Families in the comparison group were told to follow their usual approach to eating vegetables for two weeks. All families then completed a final test to see if there was any change in how kids felt about the vegetables.
The results were published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Parents chose vegetables such as red peppers, celery, cucumbers and carrots.
Of the 196 children who went through the Tiny Tastes program, the number who would eat the selected vegetable rose from 39 before the intervention to 141 after.
The comparison group showed little improvement, on the other hand. Only five of the kids who initially refused to eat their vegetable became willing to eat some or all of it.
"At the end of the study, children who had done Tiny Tastes liked the vegetables more and ate more," said Wardle.
"Parents and children both enjoyed it, and many parents went on to use the same approach for other foods."
Since parents did the testing and gave out the stickers, it's possible their own biases could have affected the outcome. But Wardle believes the results are accurate.
She said it may take up to 10 tries for kids to learn to like vegetables, but only tiny pieces are needed. She also suggested parents approach it as a game, to make it more fun.
"What I draw from this study, which is consistent with many others, is that we want our children to associate positive experiences with eating," Angela Lemond told Reuters in an email.
Lemond is a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She was not involved in the new research.
She also said parents should expose kids to a variety of foods.
"Don't delete foods when a child rejects them one, two or even five times. This is so common, and it is one of the things that contributes to 'picky eating' issues," Lemond said.
When it comes to conquering food issues, patience is also a virtue.
"The problem occurs when parents delete rejected foods and instead, serve the same five foods that the child does eat and then that child is considered a picky eater," she said.
"Children are innately discerning eaters, and that is normal. If you know this then you will take heart when they deny a food. Be patient, and keep experiences positive. They will respond positively."
Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, online Oct. 2.
Copyright 2015 Thomson Reuters.