If there’s one thing that everyone in our culture ‘knows’ about small children, it’s that they can’t stand broccoli (or cabbage or spinach). In 2015, Disney Pixar released the animated film ‘Inside Out’, which dramatizes the emotions inside an American girl’s head. Any time the girl is offered broccoli, the emotion of ‘disgust’ is triggered. This film seemed to confirm that it is a universal truth that children dislike broccoli.
Except that this isn’t in fact a universal truth. Among Japanese children, broccoli is such a popular food that Pixar was forced to change the film for its release in Japan. All of the broccoli references were taken out for a Japanese audience and substituted with green pepper. This goes to show that there is nothing natural or innate about our liking – or disliking – of different vegetables. From babyhood onwards, all of our tastes are up for grabs and we can learn to love greens, or any vegetable, no matter how bitter. The biggest obstacle is often a food culture that promotes the idea that vegetables are something ‘virtuous’ rather than something delicious.
In our collective discussions of healthy eating, we spend a lot of time talking about what people should eat and not enough talking about what they actually like to eat. Maybe this is because so many people – including nutritionists – imagine that the only truly ‘palatable’ foods are junk foods, high in sugar, fat and salt.
If we want to make radical changes to our vegetable-eating habits, we need to flip our mindset around. Given that we mostly eat what we like, lasting change is most likely to come from learning new preferences. Scientists have known for decades that the main way that anyone – adult or child – learns to like new foods is simply by trying them, multiple times. In 1968, the psychologist Robert Zajonc coined the term ‘mere exposure’ to describe this effect, which has since been confirmed across cultures. The work of the biologists Gary Beauchamp and Julie Mennella has confirmed that a baby born to a mother who drinks a lot of carrot juice in the last trimester of pregnancy will learn to love the flavour of carrots.
Any food, no matter what it tastes like, can become beloved if it is tried often enough, in a positive environment. The trouble is that it’s very difficult to get a child to try something multiple times in a positive way when he or she doesn’t want to try it even once. A technique called ‘Tiny Tastes’, pioneered by psychologists at University College London, can help. Studies have shown that if you offer the child the broccoli or pepper – or whatever it might be – in minuscule pieces, as small as a pea, it becomes much easier for the child to put it in his or her mouth. If you try this often enough, with enough different vegetables, then dislike may turn to like, who knows, maybe even learning to love greens?
Harnessing the power of preference is the key to getting people – children or adults alike – to eat more vegetables. Many children feel scared of vegetables because they are unfamiliar foods. I’m part of a group called Flavour School that is bringing a new system of sensory education to the UK. The idea is that children are more likely to grow into adults who enjoy vegetables if they are given the chance to interact with them with all their senses. In a Flavour School session, a child might use his or her senses to compare loud and quiet vegetables: the noisy crunch of celery and the silent softness of avocado. No one has to taste anything in a Flavour School session, but so far, we have found that after the children explore a food with their other senses, most of them are then only too willing to put it in their mouths.
When you don’t like vegetables, eating five a day can seem like a miserable penance. But eating broccoli is easy when you love greens (assuming you have the money to buy it and a kitchen to cook it in). Change your tastes, and the whole world looks different.