“Yuk” is one of the most common reactions I get when I suggest that parents give their children plain yogurt instead of the sweetened varieties.  Even when parents are silent, their faces say it all: they can’t imagine torturing their kids with plain yogurt.  “It doesn’t taste good.”  “It’s tart and tangy.”

This is a follow-up to my Yogurt vs. Coke post. Now that you know how yogurt stacks up against Coke I’m going to try to convince you to give plain yogurt a try. I bet you’ve dismissed it more out of habit than out of taste.  Honestly, when did you last taste it?

It turns out that a lot of what your kids like comes down to exposure — how frequently they see, smell, touch and taste a certain food.  Here’s a radical statement: If your kids don’t have the opportunity to eat plain yogurt, they’ll never like it. Plus, if you give them plain occasionally, but sweetened more often, they’ll also never like the plain stuff.  You have to commit; you can’t go back and forth.

Research tells us that the importance of exposure cannot be overstated. In fact, it can even make your kids like something they previously hated.

That’s what happened in one study conducted in England.  For 14 consecutive days a group of 2-6 year olds were asked to taste a vegetable they disliked, and by the end of the study many of the “dislikers” became “likers.”  Now that’s something to think about!

Here are some reasons why teaching your children to like plain yogurt is worth the effort:

  1. For starters, it’s plain yogurt — not the sweetened stuff — that has all the health benefits. (see Yogurt vs. Coke.)
  2. You can make it whatever flavor you want because you can add anything you want to it — jelly, sprinkles, honey.  And when you add real fruit, your child gets to eat REAL fruit, instead of the fruit concentrate — considered added sugar by the USDA — that flavors most “kid” yogurt.
  3. Because you can dress plain yogurt up yourself …
    • it will help you increase flavor/texture/appearance variety in your child’s diet and variety is pretty much the only thing that research has consistently shown to combat picky eating.
    • your kids won’t get attached to a particular brand, color, flavor, etc. – and if you have a child who won’t eat anything but XX brand yogurt, you know how tough it is to break that habit.
  4. The tangy flavor of yogurt helps expand your child’s taste preferences whereas sweetened yogurts only solidifies their desire for sugar. And, anything that expands your child’s palate will help you introduce other new foods and flavors. (Conversely, anything that restricts their palate undermines your efforts to introduce new foods.)
  5. Giving children plain yogurt teaches them what yogurt really is.  (This is no small thing.)

Remember, it’s not so much what you feed as what you teach that matters.

Source: Wardle, J., Cooke, L. J., Gibson, E. L., Sapochnik, M., Sheiham, A., & Lawson, M. (2003) “Increasing children’s acceptance of vegetables: a randomized trial of parent-led exposure.”  Appetite. 40, 155-162.