Mostly everyone has that one vegetable they just can’t stomach: peas, Brussels sprouts, spinach — the list goes on. A new study of Danish, British, and French families suggests that this widespread vegetable aversion could’ve been prevented in infancy, as researchers concluded that getting kids to eat their vegetables is most easily accomplished through offering them a wide selection before their first birthday.

Instilling in kids a tolerance, much less a preference, for veggies happens most often when they are between 6 months and 1 year old. It’s at this time that they’re most likely to develop dietary habits based on what they’re fed, the researchers found. Children also showed greater preference for a vegetable when their mother frequently ate it.

“Systematic studies demonstrate that experience with a variety of vegetables early in childhood can promote later consumption as early dietary habits often track into adulthood,” the team noted. “This study examined pre-school children's experience with vegetables across three European countries in order to assess cultural differences, effects of age and culinary practices.”

Researchers analyzed nearly 250 mothers’ reports about their child’s familiarity and taste for 36 different vegetables. On average, children had been offered 17 of those vegetables, though no child had been offered all of them. Mothers tempted kids most often with carrots, followed by broccoli, peas, sweet corn, and cucumber.

The team found that children who were presented with a range of choices between the ages of 6 months and 1 year demonstrated “a higher reported liking for these vegetables,” despite kids twice their age being given the choice more frequently. Danish children were exposed to vegetables the most often, while British children followed their mothers’ lead most frequently.

While each country had different preferences when it came to preparing their vegetables — the French puree, the Brits stew, and the Danish boil — researchers found no discernible link between preparation method and frequency of consumption.

What’s important is persistence, and it’s this stick-with-it-ness that will carry infants’ healthy eating habits into adulthood, the researchers concluded. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the amount of fruits and vegetables people should eat depends on their age, sex, and level of physical activity. But a good mark to shoot for, the CDC says, is nine servings per day.

“Creating greater access to quality and affordable F&V nationwide is an important step to increase F&V consumption,” states the CDC’s 2013 State Indicator Report on Fruits and Vegetables. “When state leaders, health professionals, food retail owners, farmers, education staff, and community members work together, more American can live healthier lives.”

 

Source: Ahern S, Caton S, Bouhlal S. Eating a Rainbow. Introducing vegetables in the first years of life in 3 European countries. Appetite. 2013.