The team from Loughborough University enlisted the help of eight nurseries from the East Midlands and gave children a portion of veg alongside their usual breakfast, every day, for three weeks.
The idea behind the study was to see if it was possible to influence eating behaviours in early life – before biases about which foods are deemed ‘appropriate’ to eat at breakfast, lunch and dinner are learned – and to open up another time in the day where children are offered vegetables.
Dr Chris McLeod, who led the project working with Professors Emma Haycraft and Amanda Daley, said: “From a young age we learn about which foods are appropriate to have in which contexts.
“For example, a roast dinner. Most people don't have that at breakfast time, but there's actually no nutritional, physiological or medical reason as to why that is the case.
“It's just something that we learn and that's reinforced by parents and caregivers, peers, marketing and the general food environment.
“And what we're trying to explore is whether there's actually a benefit to our health and wellbeing to uncoupling that learned association between food and context.”
Repeated exposure to foods plays a pivotal role in developing preferences, particularly for foods with bitter tastes like vegetables often have, said Professor Emma Haycraft, one of the paper’s co-authors.
“Some foods are inherently more pleasant and palatable, like chocolate cake, for example,” said Prof Haycraft. “We don't tend to need to encourage children or indeed adults to eat these.
“But foods like vegetables can often have a more bitter taste which means they're the foods that are more commonly refused or rejected.
“It's thought to be an evolutionary hang-up from the time when our ancestors were scavenging around for foods. More bitter tastes could signal poison, and so we've developed a wariness about eating these foods.
“What this means is that often we need time to learn to like those flavours and those tastes.
“So, this is where the need for repeated exposure comes in.”
The study aims to build on one of the key ways in which children learn, through imitating the behaviours of their peers.
The nursery settings offered an ideal opportunity for peer modelling, said Prof Haycraft, as children were able to watch their classmates willingly consuming vegetables.
Before long the curious nursery goers were asking for the same meal, even those who were initially unsure about eating the vegetables at breakfast.
The project also encouraged some of the nurseries who took part to challenge their own biases about suitable breakfast foods.
Chloe Sutton, deputy manager of the Loughborough University campus nursery, said the nursery has now hired a chef and plans to adapt all of its meal to make them more herbivorous.
She said: “We're actually looking at introducing vegetables ourselves at breakfast time. And we've increased our menu of vegetables around this research as well.
“We have things like moussaka, risotto, vegetable lentil, curries and a wide range of different vegetable dishes.”
The research team also said it was leading the project by example.
Dr McLeod has long been swapping his plain old cereal for more unusual breakfast foods.
“So, for me,” he said. “Breakfast at the moment is a batch-cooked tofu curry, which I might have with some vegetables on the side as well as within the curry itself.
“Instead of a sugary cereal, it offers a range of beneficial nutrients and helps sustain my energy throughout the morning.
“Once you challenge your own learned behaviours and assumptions about which foods can be eaten in which contexts, the variety of tasty but nutritious foods available for you to eat across the day expands considerably.”
To read the paper, visit the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity website.
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