N° 2 | June 2006

Vegetables: choices at the age of 2-3 years and link with preferences until adulthood

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Children are known for avoiding consumption of vegetables.However, in (some!) adults, vegetables naturally belong to the food repertoire. How does vegetable consumption evolve between childhood and adulthood?

Early childhood: not a good time for vegetables!

From 1982 to 1999, in a day care in Dijon, France, children aged 2 to 3 years were offered a “buffet” for lunch (Nicklaus et al., 2005a; b). In this relatively unusual setting, they could choose freely what to eat among an offer of two appetizers (often at least one vegetable salad), one protein-based dish (meat, fish or egg), two side dishes (most often one starchy food and one vegetable), two cheeses and bread. Desserts were not offered at lunch but during an afternoon snack. Children could take as much food as they wanted, provided they had cleaned their plate before taking more food. If they were not hungry, they were not forced to eat. Trained day care assistants recorded their food choices. Each of the 418 children in this study took part in 109 (± 48) lunches on average during which 117 (±19) different foods were offered.

The most often chosen foods were animal products except cold fish (top 4: sausage, breaded fish, ham, cured sausage), starchy foods (top 4: French fries, pasta, rice, couscous) and dishes made of starchy and animal products such as salty cake, cheese puff and quiche. The ten foods that were least often chosen were all vegetables: braised lettuce, steamed chicory, chicory salad, cauliflower salad, leek with vinaigrette, red cabbage salad, ratatouille, green cabbage, Brussels sprouts and baked tomatoes.

Proposing reasons why vegetables were not chosen in this setting is speculative. In young children, the nutrient composition might be a strong determinant of choice. Energydense foods were often chosen, as well as protein-rich foods.

Sensory properties might also explain choices: foods with strong flavours (developed aromas, acidity, and bitterness) or with fibrous texture were often avoided. In the case of vegetables, both a low energy-density and unpleasant sensory properties (bitterness, texture) might account for their avoidance by toddlers.

Evolution of liking of vegetables until adulthood: reason for hoping…

In 2001 and 2002, the children whose food choices were recorded at 2-3 years old were surveyed to assess their current food preferences, the variety of their food repertoire and their food neophobia (Nicklaus et al, 2004; 2005c). Their age varied then between 4 and 22 years old. We studied whether their current food preferences were related to their food choices when they were 2-3 years old, and to their current age, taking into account possible gender differences.

Whatever food group was considered (animal food, vegetables, starchy foods, cheeses and mixed dishes), food choice at 2-3 years old significantly predicted current preference for foods from the same group. In the case of vegetables however, this relation was true for girls but not for boys. In both genders, preference for vegetables increased regularly with age. This was observed for beetroot, carrot, cucumber, chicory, tomato, ratatouille, sauerkraut, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, spinach, turnip, leek and peas. Furthermore, we observed that in both genders, the variety of vegetables chosen in the day care buffet at 2-3 years old significantly predicted the variety of vegetables currently consumed.

This underlines that early consumption of vegetables is beneficial for future preference; and that preference for vegetables is partly determined already at 2-3 years old and increases with age, likely due to mechanisms that were not investigated in this survey. The vegetables for which preference increased with age are relatively common in the French repertoire, so they might have been repeatedly offered throughout childhood becoming more accepted as a result of repeated exposures (see paper from L. Cooke for insight on the role of exposure on preference for vegetables).

Perspective

We showed that there is a link between consumption, degree of choice of vegetables in early childhood and preference for vegetables during later stages of life. However the most bitter or fibrous vegetables were not an easy choice for toddlers and were avoided most of the time. Acceptance at this age might depend on earlier exposure to vegetables, for instance at the age when infants start to consume food other than milk (see paper from A. Forestell for insight on the role of very early exposure to vegetables of vegetable flavour). In all instances, the role of parents is central in providing a varied and healthy diet consistently throughout infancy and childhood and in modelling consumption of healthy food.

Nicklaus, S. et al (2004). Food Quality and Preference, 15(7-8), 805-818.
Nicklaus, S. et al (2005a). Acta Pædiatrica, 94(7), 943-951.
Nicklaus, S. et al (2005b). Acta Pædiatrica, 94(8), 1023-1029.
Nicklaus, S. et al (2005c). Appetite, 44(3), 289-297.

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