The “Bitter” Truth About Vegetables

How to get around your child’s natural distaste for veggies.

The “Bitter” Truth About Vegetables

Photo: Gerri Photography


The sun brightly awakened the day as my father and I walked out to the garden. Up ahead, my eyes spied row upon row of tilled soil distinguished only by the variety of vegetables. A special corner of our garden was dedicated to the tomatoes – my father’s favourite – each plant surrounded by a protective cage so the stems and limbs could rest against its sides.

My father reached for this year’s first, perfectly ripened tomato, his eyes wide with pleasure. This was something to celebrate! Indoors, he carved the tomato to reveal its bright insides – seeds and juices dripping from the knife’s edge. He placed the thick slices between two pieces of freshly toasted bread thinly spread with butter and mayonnaise. A sprinkling of salt and pepper completed his creation.

I loved watching this harvest ritual – listening to the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ that came with each bite my father took. Funny thing is, I detested tomatoes at the time. Yet, I have grown to crave those delicious tomato sandwiches. So there’s hope for your kids too.

Kids dislike bitter taste – naturally

My first instinct, like most kids, was to dislike vegetables. As it turns out, this is quite normal. Genetics play a huge role in children’s aversion to produce, according to a study by Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Researchers discovered that most kids (79%) in the study carried two copies of a gene that makes them sensitive to bitter tastes like those found in many vegetables.

While kids may be predisposed to sweet and salty foods, all is not lost when it comes to eating vegetables. Research shows that basic tastes can change with repeated experiences. In other words, don’t give up. And start the process early, says nutritionist Janet Farmer. “We need to build the healthiest body we can through childhood because that is what sustains us through adulthood.” says Farmer. “The first five years are of great importance.”

Loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, vegetables support growing bodies. The natural enzymes in vegetables benefit the gastro intestinal and nervous systems, helping aid digestion. A high-vegetable diet keeps the liver functioning well and helps rid the body of waste and toxins. Vegetables also protect against heart disease, cancer and other degenerative diseases later in life.

Besides exposing your kids to a wide variety of vegetables from an early age, you’ll want to make sure you are a good role model – like my Dad. His love of garden produce didn’t end with tomatoes. He simmered beets into borscht, pounded cabbage into sauerkraut, and mixed cucumbers into salads. So eat lots of vegetables yourself and don’t forget to try new ones. Seeing a parent embrace the love of vegetables is a very powerful tool for establishing good eating habits early on. It is equally important not to pass on your own dislikes when it comes to food.

According to Canada’s Food Guide, girls and boys need the following amounts of fruits and veggies per day: ages 2-3 – four servings; ages 4-8 – five servings; ages 9-14 – six servings. The veggie intake of older kids is higher and slightly different for boys and girls: girls ages 14-19 – seven servings; boys ages 14-19 – eight servings. 

There are many creative ways to get vegetables off kids’ plates and into their mouths. Try out our Kitchen Tips for Picky Vegetable Eaters (see sidebar). Farmer also notes that children sometimes dislike the texture of vegetables more than the taste. She suggests experimenting with how you serve them to a picky child. For instance, “mushy vegetables are usually not very appealing,” says Farmer. “Try serving them raw or lightly steamed. Or use cookie cutters and present vegetables in different shapes.”

Get down and dirty

The best way to help your kids learn to love vegetables is to let them get down and dirty in their very own vegetable garden. (There are lots of internet resources to help; try Following my father’s example, I use the ‘down and dirty’ method with my own three kids. We start seeds inside for 10 weeks and the kids never fail to marvel as they grow in increments each day. When warmer temperatures lure us and our seedlings outside, we wriggle our fingers inside worn garden gloves and begin the task of digging, spreading homemade compost (see sidebar) and planting.

We weed together and watch for the first blooms. Once our garden starts showing its first signs of the harvest, the kids make their daily trek between the rows, searching for brightly coloured vegetables to pluck from branches. The vegetable garden becomes its own version of a scavenger hunt.

I remember last summer when my kids came running from the garden with the first tomatoes of the season, each child’s hand wrapped around bright red shapes held high above their heads as they clambered through the door. They were soon at work rinsing off the tomatoes while I popped slices of bread into the toaster.

Moments later, we celebrated the first harvest of the season the same way my Dad and I did over 30 years ago. As I watched the them eat I wondered if my kids’ bitter-sensitive genes were enjoying the tomatoes as much as their smiles showed.

My kids and I are looking forward to continuing the tradition again this summer.


Kitchen Tips for Picky Vegetable Eaters

Choose sweet-tasting vegetables. If you’re trying to convince your child to eat veggies, start with carrots, celery, and sweet potatoes. Use a sweet, boston lettuce rather than bitter mixed greens for salads.


Disguise the bitter taste. A yummy dip alongside cut vegetables helps counter the bitter taste. Sprinkle parmesan cheese on greens. Or mix sweet veggies with more bitter ones.


Get kids to help prepare vegetables. They will be more likely to eat them. They can wash and cut or peel, depending on their age. They can also help prepare by grating cheese and making cheese sauce, for instance, for broccoli and cheese.


Play the name game. Renaming a food can increase a child’s interest in it. In one study, 186 four-year-olds were given regular carrots one day and ‘X-ray Vision’ carrots the next for a period of time. The kids in the study ate 50% more of the X-Ray Vision carrots even though nothing changed about the carrots except the name. What’s more, they continued to eat carrots even after the imaginative labeling ceased.


Hide the vegetable. While it’s better to get kids to try veggies and learn to like them, parents still want to ensure their kids are getting the required amount each day. The answer: puree vegetables and add to just about everything – sauces, soups, macaroni, pizza toppings and more.

Author: Tracey Green

Tracey Green is a business owner and freelance writer. She lives in Durham Region with her husband and three children.

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