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Pavel Losevsky

Kids and vegetables are not usually on good terms. The healthy eating battle can come down to a stand off: parents making their kids keep vigil over plates until the healthiest portions are eaten.

But researchers at Mahidol University in Bangkok have discovered a better method than coercion. Their study, published in the current issue of the journal Nutrition & Dietetics, found that kindergarteners pick up better eating habits while socializing and learning about health benefits with peers.

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Researchers had the children do a number of activities, such as take cooking classes and watch cartoons. One of the methods used to introduce new foods to fussy kids was a classroom tasting party. Various fruits and veggies were set up to taste, while children reviewed the names and usefulness, played games and sang songs. It was also important for the children to be involved in the food preparation.

At a public primary school, tasting parties helped double the veggie intake of 26 kindergarteners aged 4 and 5 whose school lunch habits were monitored over eight weeks. Parents also reported that their children talked about vegetables more at home and were more willing to pack them in their lunches.

Jennifer Crowhurst, from Peterborough, Ont. says she'd be happy to throw a tasting party at home for her daughter's friends in order to reverse the lessons she's getting in school.

Ms. Crowhurst's four-year-old daughter Mija used to eat "anything and everything," until she started kindergarten. Now classmates are filling her head with urban food legends.

"She was told if she eats broccoli, she'll turn into a tree. Peas are okay as long as you squish them, otherwise they roll around like marbles in your stomach," Ms. Crowhurst says.

Torontonian and vegetarian Aerin Guy says she has to get creative to feed her seven-year-old daughter Scarlet, but she's skeptical of tasting parties. "If you put out a tray of vegetables at a birthday party, the parents eat them."

The key is to make it look good. "Kids won't eat anything if it looks weird. They'll eat gummy worms that look like actual worms, but we struggle to get Scarlet to eat an avocado," she says.

Ms. Guy's best strategy is a cook-off with her husband. "We see who can make the best veggie burger, and Scarlet decides. She likes pitting us against each other."

Still, Ms. Guy says there are a few things Scarlet refuses to eat, such as raw tomatoes. She "balks" at onions. But she will eat spinach, on one condition.

"The spinach had to be combined with stories of giant muscles and superstrength."

Scarlet's case can be considered corroborating evidence - the tasting party study also found that children increased their vegetable consumption after watching Popeye cartoons.

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