Can you teach kids to stop hating vegies?
Humans are born to like sweet foods and dislike bitter ones, and the properties of vegies don’t align very well to being liked from an early age. But many of our food preferences are learned in childhood, and teaching kids to enjoy their vegetables has lifelong benefits.
Currently, only six percent of primary school-aged children consume the recommended amount of vegetables. But now a new program from the CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, is using science to encourage primary school kids to eat more vegies.
Using activities shown to improve kids’ willingness to eat vegetables, the free program, Taste & Learn, provides primary school teachers with simple, hands-on lesson plans aligned with the Australian curriculum. It draws on research that shows what works best with kids is repeatedly offering a variety of vegies, objectively describing them, and making vegies fun.
CSIRO’s Dr Astrid Poelman, sensory and consumer scientist, says Taste & Learn is based on research over many years into why we like the foods we like, including vegetables.
“Luckily, liking and eating vegetables is a learned behaviour,” she says. “Research shows the number one way to get kids to enjoy vegetables is to repeatedly offer a variety of them. Making vegies fun in a positive, interactive environment is also critical.”
With the Taste & Learn program, kids get to explore vegetables and all their senses through fun activities and science experiments.
“The program encourages them to become ‘food adventurers’,” Dr Poelman says. “It might seem counterintuitive, but avoiding explicit health messages works better with kids.”
Set over five weeks, the Taste & Learn program supports student academic learning by boosting literacy and science skills, among others. They learn to describe vegetables in an objective way, such as what their texture, colour or flavour is like, which helps children understand what they like or don’t like about the vegies they’re eating.
Dr Poelman and her team tested the program with more than 1600 students and 116 educators across 25 primary schools in NSW and South Australia. Their study found that Taste & Learn increased students’ willingness to eat vegetables.
Natalie Baggio, a primary school teacher from St Leonards Primary School in Adelaide, taught the Taste & Learn program to her Year 3 students.
“It’s definitely very easy to pick up and run with,” she says. “Everything was prepared for you besides the produce. The kids really enjoyed talk time, testing time and tasting time.”
Baggio says there have also been real flow-on effects of the program and it’s been a catalyst for change in the school, launching community involvement in the establishment of a school garden, which provides vegetables for the school canteen.
Primary schools can download the Taste & Learn resources at research.csiro.au/taste-and-learn. With many parents being teachers at the moment, they can also download materials.