Stock Yuck In Picturebooks

Children don’t tend to like green vegetables. Picture book creators know this, and often, greens are used as proxy for any yucky thing: Stock yuck.

A fairy’s life is filled with danger. Broccoli is often poisoned by the wicked Duchess and should never be eaten.



Never underestimate what kids learn from picturebooks. Trouble is, it’s not always what you want them to learn. Would kids even know the concept of monsters if they weren’t exposed to monsters in picturebooks; in picturebooks which are designed, no less, to teach kids not to be afraid of monsters? I have no idea.

Another thing I see cropping up time and time again in picturebooks are green vegetables as a stock example of ‘yucky stuff’. TV Tropes calls this ‘stock yuck’: Broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, cabbage. It’s not limited to food, but when it’s already a challenge getting kids to eat their greens, I groan when I come across brassicas as stock yuck in books for kids.

from Some Things Are Scary
from Some Things Are Scary
from The New Yorker

As TV tropes points out, there’s an evolutionary reason for a childhood aversion to green vegetables:

They actually taste different to children, and generally, they taste worse. Children are more receptive to bitter compounds in foods than adults (likely an evolutionary measure to prevent us from dying of plant poisoning while young), and tend to be put off by the bitter taste.

And from Slate:

How did broccoli become the poster child of the good-for-you yet ostensibly bad-tasting vegetable? Why didn’t Jeffrey seize on spinach, or Brussels sprouts, or peas as an example of produce that liberty-loving Americans would hate to be forced to buy?

Thing is, I’m not convinced that picturebooks can fight this particular battle with overt healthy eating messages. (Picturebooks with overt anything messages aren’t generally very pleasant to read, IMO.) Here are my pretty simple criteria when choosing picturebooks for our own daughter:

  1. Avoids glorification of highly processed junk food
  2. Avoids demonising the vegetables I want her to be eating

Hell, feeding kids is hard enough these days. I guess Obama knows that. (I call that a little green lie.)

Bear in mind that stock yuck is culture dependent.

stock yuck in Japan


When the three year old announced, ‘I don’t like green food’, it was as if she’d been reading some research about the taste preferences of toddlers. I tried to get more good food into her, struggled, struggled. Here are some interesting links I came across in my travels.

1. A recipe which claims to include Vegetables Your Kids Will Eat from Extraordinary Mommy. I have yet to try it out.

2. Kids Choose to Eat Vegetables If Their Plates Have Pictures of Vegetables Printed on Them, from Bon Appetit. The best place to find these, by the way, are in those cheap stores in malls which import a whole bunch of cheap crockery from Asia. I suspect Asian parents don’t have quite as much trouble getting their kids to eat their vegetables. I have a set of soup spoons with eggplants and celery people on them. They’re very cute. Everything I find in a typically Western store has cupcakes.

3. Visual Cues Encourage Vegetable Consumption from Scientific American

4. Esquire, though for men and not kids, has an article called A Foolproof Way to Make Any Vegetable Taste Good. It includes a bunch of fancy ingredients but as far as I’m concerned, it’s all about the butter.

5. From Babble: Mom, May I Have More Spinach?

Now that our kid is five, she’ll eat vegetables. This was a n=1 experiment, sure, but this worked.

1. We got rid of added sugar in the home, including cereals at breakfast time. Breakfast sets you up for the rest of the day. Eggs, banana, cheese, berries, nuts: that’s what ours has for breakfast. Once you get rid of sugar in the house, vegetables taste a hell of a lot more appealing because the brain changes in response to taste. You’ll have no trouble getting kids to eat the sweet veges like sweet potatoes and carrots and pumpkin. Even the green vegetables taste sweeter once you kick sugar. (By the way, kicking sugar isn’t easy. I recommend reading a book on how to do it first. There are quite a few of them now.)

2. Put butter on them. Grass fed, organic butter — the kind that’s bright yellow by nature. Here in Australia and New Zealand we’re lucky with our excellent dairy products. (Apparently Americans need to keep their eye out for something called Kerrygold.) Kids need saturated fat for their brain development and there’s a reason why butter tastes good. We also sprinkle pine nuts on the vegetables but I don’t know if this actually helps because the kid picks the pine nuts off and eats them separately.

3. Keep dishing up the vegetables. Familiarity breeds contempt but not in the case of vegetables, for some reason. It’s called the ‘Mere Exposure Effect’. Preference for protein tends to be inherited whereas taste for vegetables happens after many introductions.

4. Make sure the father figure eats veges too. I read somewhere that kids look to their dads when deciding what to eat. Completely unfair, since it’s often the mother doing the cooking. I was skeptical of this nugget of research at first, but I’ve since observed it’s probably true. Make the man do the ‘nom nom’ sound while chowing down on a green floret. That’ll make it worth it.

Brokoli Cookie by Robert Hellmundt
Brokoli Cookie by Robert Hellmundt

Vintage produce crate labels are now truly so wonderful as art. Could Not resist this one.....killer vegetables? Love it! cratekiller.jpg

The Very Hungry Caterpillar eats a lot of junk food, but suffers the consequences and goes back to eating green leaves.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar eats a lot of junk food, but suffers the consequences and goes back to eating green leaves.


Related: Even Michael Pollan has a picky eater. Because sometimes there’s more to it than exposure.

Have you heard of pinkwashing?

Accepting the consequences of one’s actions is a theme in our house, so I hastily add a line in which McGonagall gives Harry a paper to write on the importance of following instructions. Then I underscore the responsibility of being on a team, so that getting to be seeker doesn’t seem entirely like a reward for bad behavior.

I do this sort of on-the-fly editing all the time when reading to my 5-year-old. I call it “pinkwashing” after the scene in “Pinkalicious” in which the poor, discolored child must stomach horrible green vegetables as a cure for her unfortunate pinkness. She chokes down artichokes, gags on grapes and burps up brussels sprouts. The passage serves important narrative and stylistic functions, of course, but Emmett loves artichokes, grapes and brussels sprouts. He never complains about eating them, so rather than hint at a generation-long struggle against the tyranny of green veggies, I replace the negative verbs with positive ones. Pinkwashing.

Child Proofing Harry Potter

…the ad team visited an elementary school in Boulder, Colo., to get a better sense of what children thought about broccoli. This was a progressive school, certainly as far as food was concerned. The school district’s director of food services, Ann Cooper, was imported from Berkeley, Calif., where she once worked with Alice Waters; on the school’s grounds there was a garden where various fruits and vegetables were grown, to inspire the students to be connected to the source of their food. The team was encouraged when it heard that the students had generally positive feelings — until Cooper reminded them that children were only one part of the challenge and that the parents who actually bought the groceries were, by and large, part of a generation that viewed broccoli as “brown, squishy and smelly.”

Broccoli’s Extreme Makeover, NYT

The Spinach Is Crying
The Spinach Is Crying