Home > Miscellany > Kids, vegetables, and expectations

Kids, vegetables, and expectations

Today, The Economist’s Free Exchange blog mentioned a recent study looking at how children decide between chocolate and broccoli based on the presence or absence of an Elmo sticker.  My short version of their short version is that putting the Elmo sticker on the broccoli seems to get more kids to choose it over a chocolate bar relative to a situation in which neither chocolate nor broccoli is adorned with Elmo’s smiling face.

The blogger adds:

Interesting, no? But isn’t the real story here that given the choice between a chocolate bar and broccoli, 22% of children chose broccoli? Surely that means that this study is unreliable, having been based on a skewed sample, no? Because I’m pretty sure that in a representative sample of the population 0% of the children included would opt for the broccoli, correct?

I realize that R.A. is being tongue-in-cheek and probably doesn’t mean anything serious by this, but it got me thinking back to my own childhood relationship with vegetables.

Specifically, I loved them, especially spinach.  I grew up in an ethnic minority household, and my mother could prepare pretty much any vegetable in a very, very delicious manner.  There was nothing I loved better as a child than my mom’s ethnic minority spinach dish.[1]

This is why I was always puzzled by children’s media (TV, books, whatever else there was in the pre-Internet days) that depicted children needing to be cajoled into eating their Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and spinach.  Why would you need to be asked?  Spinach (at least as I knew it) was quite possibly the Best Thing Ever, as far as food went.  Those other kids, including those depicted in media and those I know in real life, were crazy!

It wasn’t until my high school cafeteria served up boiled, soggy, tasteless spinach that I saw where they were coming from.  Even then, though it paled in comparison to the gastronomically enlightened version that my mom made, it wasn’t that bad.

A lot has been written on children’s nutrition and on what can be done to improve it.  What children see their parents eating is obviously important, and teaching people to cook nutritious food in interesting ways (so that both the adults and kids will want to eat it) has been touted as a way to improve childhood nutrition.  That said, and knowing full well that these factors interact with one another in countless ways, I can’t help but look back to my own childhood and realize that the only inkling I had of the idea that vegetables were something to be disliked came primarily from kids’ books and TV shows.

Where would children learn to hate vegetables if not from their parents’ expectations or from media?  I’ve met children under the age of two whose days are made when they get peas with dinner… what are the odds they’ll have to be cajoled into eating vegetables in a few years’ time?

I don’t mean this as advocacy of censorship or regulation of any sort, and I definitely don’t think that changing these expectations is something that can be done overnight, or even something that would solve any problems on its own.  I just find it interesting that North American culture, at least as I’ve experienced it, has created such a strong presumption that children “should” hate their vegetables that people rarely think to ask why that should be the case to begin with.

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[1] – I hope it doesn’t matter to you which ethnic minority group I belong to, because I’m not telling! Back to text.

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