Cultivate Enjoyment: Using Exposure To Make Fruits & Vegetables Tastier Over Time

When things taste better, people eat them. In an important application of this basic idea, Juliana Cohen and her colleagues increased veggie consumption at a school cafeteria by hiring professional chefs to make the lunch veggies taste better.

Less intuitively, it is also true that, when people eat things, they taste better. Psychologists call this the mere exposure effect, and it works. Enjoyment can be cultivated, simply through systematic exposure.

Regularly eating certain foods is what allows national dishes to be so beloved in home countries, but considered “acquired tastes” elsewhere — like spicy food in Mexico, and kimchi in South Korea.

A New Year’s Resolution:

Increasing exposure to fruit and vegetables is a great source of inspiration for New Year’s resolutions for parents. A specific one I like is, “I will encourage my kids to try a non-favorite fruit or vegetable every day”. Here are some nuances:

  • It’s the attempt that counts. Some days, you’ll serve it and they won’t eat it. That still counts.
  • Keep it positive. Always. Give enthusiastic praise for real progress (e.g., trying new fruits and veggies, actually eating, etc.), but kind words too for simply trying. And make it fun when you can (e.g., the airplane food game never gets old)
  • There will be failure. Protect your kid from your discouragement by staying positive and focusing on long term success. Change won’t happen overnight.
  • Tolerance is the goal. The goal is not “loving a new fruit for vegetable”, it is “tolerating a new fruit or vegetable”.
  • Repetition: Keep it simple. Some variation is good, but it’s fine to attempt the same fruit and vegetable every day.

Will it work?

A few studies have shown that exposure is even more important than palatability in increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. While I’m still a huge fan of palatability improvements, research suggests that parents grossly underutilize the power of exposure.

The craft of effective exposure is something all parents should learn. If parents keep it positive — even just giving their kids stickers as reward for fruits and veggie consumption — liking of fruits and veggies will increase.

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