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How vegetables make the meal: their hedonic and heroic impact on perceptions of the meal and of the preparer

Vegetables are served at only 23% of American dinners despite their known nutritional value, indicating that their healthfulness alone is not enough incentive to serve them. This study looks at additional sensory and social incentives for eating vegetables. We hypothesized that the inclusion of vegetables in a meal will enhance sensory expectations of the main dish, and that a person who serves vegetables with dinner will be described with more positive traits than a person who does not.

To investigate these hypotheses, a series of means-end laddering interviews were conducted to identify the associations that people had with the vegetables served, the quality of the meal, and the perceptions of the person preparing the meal.  An online survey quantitatively tested the generalizability of these associations among 500 female participants from 18 to 65 years who had at least two children. The first part of the survey involved two projective scenarios in which a woman prepares dinner for her family. In one version the woman includes a vegetable side and in the other she does not. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to the first scenario and half to the second. Participants were then asked to select 3 words of a list of 12 that best describe the woman; half of the words were classified as positive and the other half as negative. The next section was a meal-rating survey that asked respondents to rate the quality and nutrition of four meals which either did or did not contain vegetables. Participants were also asked basic ratings of how vegetables influence their perceptions of meals, and to report their favorite vegetable and the favorite vegetable of their oldest and youngest child. Additionally, an average of 70.2% of mothers easily recalled their children’s favorite vegetables indicating that the majority of children do have a favorite vegetable.

In the projected scenario section, the woman that served vegetables was rated more positively than the woman who did not serve vegetables. The results of the meal rating section indicate that vegetables increased the average perception of most main dishes. The results also show that the positive impact of serving vegetables is not simply an effect of including an additional side.  Respondents generally agreed that adding vegetables made the main course taste better; this is evident for both vegetable-loving and non-vegetable loving mothers. These results suggest that vegetables “make the meal” because they lead one to infer that the meal is made with more effort, love, and that it is tastier.  This study shows that vegetables play a powerful role in increasing the enjoyment of a meal and are associated with positive perceptions of the server.