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To increase children’s acceptance of vegetables, they need to eat them frequently before they turn two. Not only that, but vegetables shouldn’t be sweetened to make them tastier or buried in pasta where no one knows they hide. Eating vegetables means eating a serving of something, right there on a plate. To get children to do that, begin early.

Researchers fed artichoke puree to 332 children ages 6 months to 38 months (three years old). They chose artichoke as the test veggie because parents said they had rarely or never served that to their children. Each child was offered between five and 10 servings, over several days, naturally, of 100 grams of artichoke puree. That’s a little less than half a cup. That’s quite a bit of vegetable.

Some of the puree was served as-is. Sometimes it was served sweetened with sugar. Sometimes it was served enriched with a little vegetable oil. Neither of the additives had any effect. The plain puree was accepted as well as the sweetened puree was.

And the plain puree was accepted, especially by younger tots. Over 20% of children ate more than a third of a cup of artichoke puree by the end of the study. These children were almost all under 24 months of age. Another 16% of children ate hardly any puree and these children were all the preschool-age kids. A quarter of the children sometimes ate quite a bit and sometimes ate little and the largest single group – 40% –  steadily increased their intake of artichoke. The more opportunities children had to eat the vegetable the more they ate at each sitting.

Much of the take-away from this study runs counter to the way parents think about feeding toddlers. We tend to assume children prefer sweets and reject vegetables, so we doctor food to make it more acceptable. We lose hope early and assume after just one or two tries with a vegetable that a child “just doesn’t like it” and give up serving it. Both of these assumptions appears to be wrong. Children accept vegetables just fine, just the way they are, and they accept them more readily the more often they have a chance to eat them.

In addition, we parents tend to wait until a child is older before introducing vegetables. While we might serve mashed peas or sweet potato – both sweet foods, by the way – we put off broccoli, cauliflower, and, yes, artichokes until children are preschool age. This is a mistake. Children typically become more conservative about food selection as they get older. The window of vegetable opportunity opens early in life.

Now, when summer vegetables are plentiful and delicious, is an ideal time to not only introduce new foods to small children but to continue to serve them day after day. Normalize vegetables, rather than imagining veggies take a special effort to make them palatable. Keep in mind, of course, that some vegetables, like corn, are difficult to mash up for tiny palates. But vegetables that can be pureed or cooked soft enough to make good finger food deserve star billing on your lunch and dinner menus.

Start your baby on veggies now.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

Parenting is no easy feat, especially when it comes to feeding your child.  Encouraging a positive attitude about food and eating, consuming nutritious foods, and cultivating a good body image are fundamental to your child’s health and wellbeing.  The attention you give to food selection and the process of feeding your child lays the foundation for a future of health and body confidence.  Here are five key concepts to consider as you raise your healthy eater:

Enrich the Plate and the Palate

Children require over 40 nutrients each day.  Offering a wide variety of whole, natural foods that include low-fat dairy products, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains will help assure these nutrient needs are met.  Reduce consumption of processed foods and foods with artificial colorings, as these may be nutrient-poor and crowd out the necessary nutrients required by your growing child.

Focus on Family Meals

Sit down and eat together as often as you can.   Research indicates that three to five family meals per week improves grades, reduces risk-taking behaviors in teens, and prevents obesity and eating disorders.

Try family-style feeding: put a variety of prepared food into serving dishes, pass them around the table and let everyone choose which foods they will eat and how much.  Be sure to include one or two food items that you know your child likes and is comfortable eating. Family-style meals encourage your child to eat food amounts that are right for his body and appetite.

Provide, Don’t Deprive

Be a great provider: Take care to keep your kitchen stocked with nutrient-rich foods. Prepare good-tasting, healthy meals that appeal to your child. Anticipate hunger between meals and serve healthy snacks that satisfy your child.

Avoid being a depriver: When it comes to your child’s appetite, be sure to respect his hunger. Restricting or controlling how much your child eats may leave him hungry and promote overeating at other occasions.

Be Predictable and Consistent

Develop a rhythmic and timely pattern to meals and snacks, and be consistent. Predictability and consistency helps your child keep hunger in check, be more relaxed about eating, and less fixated on food.

Be a Positive Influence

Parents are the greatest influence, particularly in the first decade of life, on their child’s eating behaviors, food selections, and body image.  To raise healthy eaters, you have to be a healthy eater too!  Be a terrific role model for your child by enjoying nutritious, wholesome foods every day.

Negative comments about your child’s food selections, how much or how little they eat, and how they look may hurt your child’s self esteem and body image. At mealtime, take the focus off of food and body size and enjoy a conversation about the school day or future activities on the family schedule.

Following these strategies will help you be a great feeder and raise a child who is a confident, healthy eater.