Every once in a while you come across a toddler who eagerly eats a huge dinner salad or side of Ratatouille. However, most parents find it difficult to get their children to eat more vegetables. If you raise a picky eater, join the club. This can be frustrating for you as a parent, but it’s not a sign that you are doing something wrong.
Young children, in particular, are supposed be picky. They are hardwired to reject new foods and foods that taste bitter or “gross” to them, a phenomenon known as “neophobia.” Experts believe it’s an innate survival mechanism designed to keep dangerous plants out of their mouths. Your child doesn’t know that Brussels sprouts and mustard greens don’t try to kill them. Although children begin to outgrow neophobia when they reach school age, most parents of older children and teenagers will tell you that getting them to like vegetables is still not easy.
So what should parents do?
On the one hand, we want our children to eat varied, colorful meals that provide the full range of vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals that promote strong, healthy bodies. On the other hand, the constant rejection of our hard work in the kitchen is exhausting and demoralizing. Above all, we don’t want the meals to be miserable.
It is not easy to expand your children’s palettes, and it may take longer than you would like, but it can be finished. It comes down to two things: getting the kids on board and making the veggies as appealing as possible. Here are some creative ideas to help children develop a taste for vegetables.
Tips for Getting Kids (and Picky Eaters of All Ages) to Enjoy Vegetables
Give them choices.
Your kids will never really enjoy vegetables if you force it. Children respond best when they feel they have some control and agency in any situation. Give them some choice in the matter…but compel them.
Instead of “What do you want for dinner?” ask, “Should we have broccoli or asparagus with our dinner tonight?
Instead of saying, “You have to eat your vegetables before you can leave the table,” try, “Would you prefer three bites of cauliflower or two bites of cauliflower and a baby carrot?” »
Serve lots of options.
Everyone loves buffet food. To try:
- Taco or nacho bar, burrito bowls (tomatoes, salsa, onions, scallions, various peppers, cilantro, avocado – which yes, is technically a fruit)
- Cooked potato or sweet potato bar (chopped broccoli or cauliflower, onions, tomatoes, chives)
- Poke bowls (grated carrots and cabbage, diced cucumber, diced or grated radish, edamame, seaweed, avocado)
- salad buffet (anything!)
It also gives children a choice, and it’s more fun than a pile of vegetables on their plates. As they prepare their meals, encourage them to take a bite of something new.
Sure, it’s a bit more work up front to chop up a bunch of vegetables, but think of it like meal preparation. You can use the leftovers to make omelettes or salads the next day.
Explain why this is important.
We adults don’t always to like all the “healthy foods” we choose to eat. (Does anyone love zucchini as much as dessert?) We eat them because we know they’re good for us and we appreciate how they make us feel. Even young children can understand that different foods provide different building blocks that help our bodies grow stronger. Just as their Lego sets have blocks of different shapes, sizes, and colors, different colored vegetables perform slightly different functions.
Keep it simple and age-appropriate, but give kids credit for being smart (if not always rational or cooperative!)
Involve them in the preparation.
Again, this appeals to their desire for control. Even young children can help in the kitchen with washing, chopping, seasoning, mashing, plating, etc. Let them choose a vegetable from the grocery store or farmer’s market, something familiar or new. Get older kids involved in finding easy vegetable recipes they might enjoy. Encourage them to pack their own lunch boxes (with options you approve, including at least one vegetable).
Make eating vegetables fun.
Don’t take mealtimes too seriously. Let your children play with their food. Cut veggies into fun shapes and let them arrange them on their plate for cooking art.
Ask them questions about food that encourage them to be interested in it. What food on their plate is the crunchiest, softest, shiniest, saltiest? Imagine you’re on a cooking show and come up with fun or creative ways to portray dinner as if you were contestants or judges.
Make a color chart and have the children put stickers in different columns to show the variety of vegetables they have tried.
Experiment with different textures.
Children’s aversion to vegetables often has as much to do with texture as taste. Your children may prefer certain foods raw, roasted, steamed or air fried. Maybe you can’t get them to eat a side of broccoli, but they will eat a bowl of mixed broccoli soup. Mixed soups can also be used as dips for sandwiches, wraps, crackers or other vegetables they like the most.
Make them taste better.
But let’s be honest: it’s usually the taste of vegetables that puts off children and many adults. We all want eat foods that taste good, and trying to force kids to like foods that just don’t taste good is always going to be a losing proposition. That said, there are ways to enhance (and, to some extent, disguise) the flavor.
In general, grilled vegetables tastes better than steamed or boiled. Salt and other seasonings make a big difference, as does adding fat. Other proven ideas are
Serve small portions.
Children don’t need to eat huge portions of vegetables. One to one and a half cups during the day is sufficient for young children, two to three cups for older children and adolescents. You’ll likely have better luck serving small portions at each meal and snack. Toddlers can get what they need with just a few bites each time spread over the day.
bento boxes can be a great way to serve smaller portions of a variety of foods in a kid-friendly way.
When all else fails, hide them
This strategy is somewhat controversial. Yes, the ultimate goal is to help our children make independent food choices. The “hide them” strategy shouldn’t replace your efforts to get your kids on board with veggies, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet and get those nutrients. In other words, keep trying, even if you sneak into veggies. by
- Blend them into smoothies
- Bake them in muffins, pancakes or brownies
- Slip them into the pasta sauce
- Mix them with minced meat
lead by example
If you want your kids to “eat the rainbow” of their own free will, you need to model that behavior. Also watch how you talk about vegetables. If your attitude is, “Yeah, cauliflower is gross, but it’s good for you, so eat it,” chances are your child will never accept it.
Do not abandon
Your kids may never like vegetables no matter how hard you try. Some people like certain foods more than others. You are not a bad parent and your child is not a bad child if he does not like vegetables. That doesn’t mean you should stop offering them, though. Research shows that it usually takes 6-15 exposures before a child begins to accept a new food, and it could be a lot longer.
They will probably never like vegetables as much as sweeter foods like fruit or ice cream. It’s another innate preference, and you can’t fight nature. That’s why it’s important to get their buy-in. Hopefully, they’ll choose to eat vegetables even if they’re not their favorite, because they understand why it’s important.
If they eat a variety of foods, even if not as varied as you would like, this includes protein sources, a few different vegetables, fruits, and perhaps yogurt and other dairy products, it’s a good start. If you’re concerned about his nutritional status, talk to his pediatrician about adding a multivitamin. Otherwise, give it time.
The big thing to remember is that you don’t want to get locked into a power struggle with your kids over food. When the meal becomes a battlefield, everyone loses. I know it’s hard when it feels like your kids are stubborn and uncooperative, but their dislikes have a real biological basis (and also, kids push buttons like it’s their job). Chances are your child will become a good eater with a more diverse palette as they get older if you continue to offer opportunities and encouragement without forcing them. Hang on!