Every family has at least one horror story of a perfectly civilised Sunday lunch descending into open warfare just because of a humble vegetable left untouched, unloved and uneaten.

In the vast majority of cases, an aversion to vegetables is a childhood phase that we tend to grow out of. It's been a lifelong challenge however for Operation Transformation leader Shane Farrell.

Vegetables are a pretty prominent feature of the OT meal plans and Shane was really struggling as a result. Aoife Hearne, a dietician on Operation Transformation, spoke to Ray D’Arcy about how she’s helping Shane to include more vegetables in his diet. She also shared her top tips for getting children to eat their greens.

On the initial introduction, viewers could have been forgiven for thinking that Shane was maybe just a picky eater, even Aoife admitted she had underestimated the extent of his aversion.

"It’s not that he doesn’t just like vegetables, he gags on different textures and things, so he’s quite limited I suppose."

The only way for Shane to overcome this issue is basically through exposure – gradually re-introducing himself to different vegetables by taste-testing them, outside of meal times. Aoife explained how she and the OT team approached this.

"Myself and Eddie went down and met him in his school and he rated all of the vegetables that are on the OT food plan, the ones he was willing to try first and ones that he thinks will be more of a challenge. So he kind of rated them out of ten and each week now he’s going to taste a small amount of whatever vegetable it is that week … and then to move onto the next vegetable."

Aoife and Kathryn
Aoife Hearne and host Kathryn Thomas

In the meantime though, Shane is going to get his vegetables in by relying on an old favourite – soup. Ray queried whether soup was as good as eating vegetables whole. Aoife advised that it was always best to eat a fruit or vegetable in their whole form, but that there’s not as much of a distinction between vegetables and vegetable soup as there is between drinking fruit juice instead of eating fruit.

While we continue to monitor Shane’s progress with his veggies over the next few weeks, Ray asked Aoife about why many children struggle with their greens from time to time.

"From around 15 months to maybe 5 years, children go through what we call the neophobic stage where they start to refuse certain foods and maybe textures or even colours."  

Many parents resort to hiding or masking vegetables in other foods that children enjoy, it’s not a strategy Aoife would recommend though.

"Disaster, don’t do it. What we see then is maybe children can trust you less about what’s going into their food, so it may turn them off foods that they’re already accepting. Listen I’ve got three small kids, I get it, it’s hard, even painful at times."

OT experts
Operation Transformation 2020 experts

One of the keys to success – as with so many things in life – is patience, not badgering children to eat vegetables, but giving them the option.

"Offering vegetables, even when they don’t eat them, with no pressure to eat, is really important, that’s what the evidence is saying time and time again."

The other element to successfully influencing children’s eating habits is being a good role model.

"Children seeing their parents eat vegetables and fruit. Being a role model is really, really important. There’s some research around this idea of food parenting no and that’s part of our job as parents."

Aoife hasn’t much time for old-school strategies of threatening children with what might happen if they don’t eat their vegetables.

"We want children to eat not because there are children in the world that have no food, we want children to eat in response to their own internal cues for hunger."

Including children in the process of growing, shopping and cooking their food is a good way to demystify the whole thing and get them on board with eating a wide range of foods.

"Getting kids involved in cooking is important, helping them maybe even grow some vegetables, getting them connected to where the food is coming from so they feel safe with it. Playing games, all that stuff can actually really help."

You can listen back to the interview on RTÉ Radio 1 above.