My 67-year-old father likes only three vegetables: raw carrots, a pile of iceberg lettuce and corn on the cob slathered with butter.
While he recognizes that vegetables are packed with nutrients and was regularly exposed to them as a child, he doesn’t wish that he liked more of them. His distaste seems more related to texture than taste, since he thinks they “don’t taste like anything,” he told me recently.
Like my dad, about 90% of American adults don’t eat the recommended 2 to 3 cups of vegetables a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Depending on age, children should have 1 to 3 cups of vegetables a day, but most are not getting enough.
With so many people lacking vegetables in their diets, we asked experts whether people can train themselves to like them ― or at least to eat more of them ― and how they can teach their kids to love vegetables.
To many, fresh vegetables aren’t affordable or sustainable
Cynthia Stadd, a holistic nutrition professional in Boulder, Colorado, who specializes in food relationships and eating psychology, attributes the absence of vegetables in so many diets to the accessibility of the produce and busy schedules preventing people from eating healthier.
“What I hear most people say is, ‘I know I should be eating more vegetables. I’m totally open to it. I want to. I just don’t know how to get them in. I don’t have time to buy them. I don’t have time to prep them. I don’t have time to cook them,’” Stadd told HuffPost.
Many Americans, especially in low-income areas, lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Jill Patterson, a Connecticut-based registered dietitian nutritionist and consultant specializing in school nutrition and employee wellness programs, said many of her clients tell her they don’t keep fresh vegetables on hand because they spoil too quickly.
She said one solution is canned or frozen vegetables, the latter of which are just as nutrient-rich as fresh and have a longer shelf life.
Vegetable avoidance can also be genetic or psychological
Genetics could predetermine a dislike for vegetables, Patterson told HuffPost. People with supertaster genes, estimated to be about 25% of the population, have more taste buds and experience stronger taste sensations, especially related to bitterness. Supertasters tend to be picky eaters and averse to many vegetables, like spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
Psychological factors also influence food likes and dislikes, Stadd said. For example, if someone was forced to eat broccoli as a child, they may have a negative or traumatic association with the food and not eat it as an adult.
Even though the reactions are subconscious, foods can trigger negative feelings, she said.
Your brain can adapt to eating more vegetables
You may not like all vegetables, but you can train yourself to eat more, Patterson said. It just takes a willingness to make lifestyle changes and adopt new habits.
Thinking positively about incorporating more vegetables into a diet can help trick the brain into being willing to eat more, Stadd said.
Research shows more people ate vegetables when they were labeled with more exciting, indulgent descriptions that didn’t mention health. In the study, when green beans were described as “sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots,” 25% more subjects chose to eat them.
You also may feel more interested in eating foods like vegetables if they make you feel good or you see some kind of health improvement as a result of eating them, research shows. The concept known as flavor-nutrient learning could help people see vegetables in a more positive light.
Patterson suggests embracing a variety of vegetables and experimenting with different recipes, flavors and ways of preparing them.
“Maybe you like cooked vegetables; maybe you like fresh vegetables, or maybe you like certain vegetable recipes,” she said. “Find the ones you like and keep incorporating those into the menu planning.”
Your kids are more likely to eat more vegetables if you do
Research shows that repeated exposure to vegetables increases intake. Prater urges parents to persistently offer vegetables to their children and to prepare them in new and different ways to create excitement, but to never force kids to eat anything they don’t want to eat.
“As parents, we pick our battles,” she said. “But, if you’re constantly giving in and only allowing your child to eat cookies and crackers and all these high-energy, nutrient-poor foods, that’s what they’re going to get used to.”
Having more fruits and vegetables ― and less junk food ― on hand will help parents win some of these battles, she said.
Parents may not always like healthy foods, but projecting a dislike of vegetables or any other food is a no-no. Prater said kids could internalize the comments, making them adopt similar behaviors and see certain foods as good or bad.
Regular family meals give parents the opportunity to expose children to new foods and model their own healthy eating habits. Research shows that when families eat together often, meals are higher-quality, with more fruits and vegetables. And, involving kids in food shopping and meal prep increases food acceptance and boosts vegetable intake.
Picky eating is common among kids, and many outgrow it. Parents may be tempted to hide vegetables in dishes that a child likes to make sure the child gets the nutrients, but it can backfire, Prater said.
“They could lose trust and then not want to try anything,” she explained. “You just have to know your kids and know that one thing is not going to work for every kid.”
Generally, parents shouldn’t get “too hung up on it” if their kids won’t eat vegetables ― unless a child’s growth or overall health is impacted, and then parents should talk to a pediatrician, Prater said.
“I think that’s the biggest thing is patience for parents and to keep trying, persistence,” she said.