Chicken, steak, pasta – these classic dishes are featured in many family dinners. Besides making common sense from a nutritional point of view, would the addition of a vegetable to a meal change anything else for the eater? Would they see the meal as more loving, better tasting or even give them an improved opinion of the meal preparer? In this study researchers Brian Wansink, Misturu Shimizu and Adam Brumberg explored the impact that adding a vegetable to the plate has on perceptions of both the meal and the person who prepared it. With the majority of vegetable consumption in the American diet taking place at dinner time but only 23% of those meals being served with a vegetable, the study explores what added psychological motivation to include vegetables in meals might exist.
The study consisted of two phases. Twenty-two laddering interviews were conducted, followed by a national survey of 500 American mothers with two or more children under the age of 18. The survey asked participants to evaluate meals served either with or without vegetables as well as a cook who did or did not include a vegetable with a dinner time meal. Participants were also asked to choose from a list of twelve attributes, such as “selfish” or “loving”, to describe the meal preparer. No respondent saw both versions of the meal or meal preparer. The survey also asked questions regarding children’s favorite vegetable.
Those rating meals that included a vegetable gave significantly higher ratings to dishes such as chicken, steak and pasta on a variety of dimensions including “tasty” and “loving”. The results showed that meals were favored when a vegetable was included, such as steak vs. steak with broccoli (score of 7.00 as opposed to 8.08), but also received better descriptions such as “loving” for the same meal (7.00 vs. 7.92). They also chose much more positive descriptors for the meal preparer that served a vegetable, including much more frequent selection of “thoughtful”, “attentive” and “capable” accompanied by a decrease in the selections of “neglectful”, “selfish” and boring. Overall, vegetables “made the meal”, not only in terms of enhancing expectations of the main dish but in terms of creating a better perception of the cook as well.
Some interesting insights concerning children’s favorite vegetables were also uncovered. Most participants easily recalled their children’s favorite vegetable, with over a dozen different vegetables receiving multiple mentions. Interestingly, vegetable preference changed with age; broccoli was the overall favorite for older children, with carrots and corn topping the list for the younger kids.
In short, vegetables can definitely enhance the enjoyment of the meal, but, unless you’re vegan or vegetarian, they will not be the central focus. And if added nutrition is not enough of a motivation to get the veggies on the plate, perhaps the notion that they can turn you into a better, more loving cook might do the trick. With widespread recommendations to increase vegetable consumption among American, and in particular among kids, any tool that can increase servings is welcome. So if you want to be a hero in your own kitchen, just add veggies to your meals and enjoy the nutritional AND emotional benefits they will provide!
Wansink, B., Shimizu, M., & Brumberg, A. (2012). How vegetables make the meal: Their hedonic and heroic impact on perceptions of the meal and on the preparer. Public Health and Nutrition.
Cornell Food & Brand Lab