If your kid is gagging on her broccoli, thank Mother Nature.
Turns out that veggie aversion is rooted not in fussiness, but in physiology. Children, though smaller than us in every way, actually outsize us when it comes to our taste buds. They’ve got a whole lot more of them – as many as three times.
This difference has been the cause of kitchen-table standoffs for generations, as kids refuse their vegetables and parents pursue creative and sometimes desperate measures to get their kids to Please … just … take … one … bite.
“It’s just stressful, trying to eat right and cooking for them,” one frustrated mom told us. “You can just tell it’s coming – the negotiations, the fights.”
But with a little understanding of how veggies taste when hitting tiny taste buds, we may be able to turn those potential standoffs into standing ovations, or – let’s be realistic – fairly clean plates.
Let’s look into this natural difference between how grownups and children taste, and some simple ways to get kids to love veggies for life.
Rules of Three
First, let’s all get on the same page about what taste buds are. They aren’t those little bumps on our tongues – those are papillae. It’s the papillae that hold taste buds, each of which is covered in tiny hairs that transmit to our brains what foods taste like.
Babies have up to 30,000 of these crazy buds – three times the number as adults. This is for good reason. Babies can’t do much, but their taste buds are actual buddies, alerting them to what is good and not good for them. For example, most of their taste buds are aligned to send happy messages when experiencing high-fat, sweet foods that will help them grow, such as milk. Foods that are more bitter, such as vegetables, are rejected as potentially poisonous.
The good news is this tongue transmission changes with time. As babies grow, their taste buds are replaced regularly – every two weeks in fact. In the process, some buds are not replaced, so the number of them declines. As explained by one researcher of a 2005 study into taste disparities between kids and adults: “It may be that childhood represents a time of heightened bitter taste sensitivity in some children, which lessens with age.”
Sadly, by the time kids’ taste buds mature enough to actually send a thumbs-up on the broccoli or green pepper, their knee-jerk impulses have taken over. Lots of kids just have too many negative associations with vegetables.
Secret Sauce: The Veggie Fix
Getting kids to love veggies for life takes understanding, and it also takes good timing. The best way to fix the situation is to nip it at the bud (sorry). Following are a few tips to getting there:
- Start early and often: Researchers say it can take as many as 15 tries before a baby likes a new food. One way to reduce the number: Introduce babes to solid foods first thing in the morning or after a nap. Also, use a lot of variety. With eight tries, we often are golden.
- Empower the child: Make every grocery outing an opportunity for the kids to play a role in meal making. Let them choose the evening’s meal, as long as it includes one nutritious veggie they will eat.
- Leonardo Da Veggie: Invite the kids to be creative in the kitchen. Ask them to wash the veggies and (if old enough) to help cut them. Once the food is prepared, kids can garnish the plates by creating pictures or decorations with the veggies. Chances are they will want to see you enjoy them and will join in.
- Choose healthy toppers: Time restrictions often force busy parents to resort to dips and dressings. This is fine, but ideally the dip should not compromise the nutrition of the veggie. The best bet is to look for all natural, preservative-free and MSG-free dips and toppers.
Most important, watch closely and pay attention. With taste buds changing every two weeks, babies are experience regular palate shifts. Have the veggies ready, and thank Mother Nature.