School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences


20 Dec 2018

‘Tis the season to be fussy… how to encourage your children to eat their sprouts

Evolutionary biology gives children a wonderful gift at Christmas… a proven scientific excuse for disliking sprouts.

Our ancestors learned to develop a preference for sweet tastes, which signalled high-energy content, over bitter foods, which ran the risk of being rotten, as they hunted and foraged to survive.

So, youngsters aren’t being awkward when they say they don’t like some vegetables – they’re simply exhibiting natural gatherer instincts.

Luckily, Loughborough University is a leading research centre for child psychology, with a particular expertise in child eating habit.

And as part of the 2018 Christmas campaign Dr Gemma Witcomb and Dr Emma Haycraft have created a list of top tips to combat your little ones’ predisposed aversion to greens.

“Food refusal is actually a developmentally predictable stage that most children will go through, peaking around 18 to 24 months of age,” said Dr Witcomb.

“So, if your little one is at this stage in their life, don’t be surprised if their Christmas dinner is not gobbled up with glee.

“Equally, don’t be surprised if they do seem to show an interest in eating your Christmas chocolates, but avoid the brussels sprouts.

“The preference for sweet tastes and dislike of bitter tastes are innate and are heavily rooted in our evolutionary biology and they’re useful for signally energy density and food freshness.

“What is important is how these eating behaviours are managed.”

Combat fussy Christmas eating… top tips:

  • Relax the pressure: The festive period is stressful enough. Don’t focus on your child’s rejection of their vegetables and don’t pressure them to eat something that they don’t want to. It won’t encourage them to like it in the long term.
  • Embrace the many family meals and get-togethers as a chance to model healthy eating behaviour: Children learn from others and will often try a new food if they see others eating and enjoying it. Is there a vegetable that you are struggling to get your child to taste? Serve it up at a family meal and gets others involved in showing your child that it tastes good. 
  • Watch portion sizes: Christmas is often associated with excess, make sure that you don’t give unrealistic portion sizes to children and then pressure them to eat it all. Continually doing so teaches children that they don’t know when they are full and does not create happy mealtimes.
  • Praise your child for eating (any amount) of their meal and for trying new foods. We all like praise, and it motivates us all.
  • Avoid having lots of food on display if you aren’t happy for your child to eat it. Overt restriction of food makes it highly prized and such food is often eaten to excess when free access is given. Try keeping food out of sight until the kids are in bed, or pre-portioning foods into child-sized portions to make it easier to manage if the children ask for more.
  • Remember, it is Christmas, and some indulgence as part of a healthy lifestyle is ok.

Dr Haycraft said: “When faced with a child who is eating a limited diet, refusing foods, including previously liked foods, and showing preferences only for unhealthy foods, many parents feel unsure how to manage each meal.

“And, in some cases, the tactics that parents fall back on can inadvertently exacerbate the problem.

“But, hopefully, by following these simple pointers you can encourage your youngster improve their diet, and they might even enjoy it.”

Dr Witcomb and Dr Haycraft have pooled their knowledge and created the Child Feeding Guide.