There are few parents who don’t relate to finding vegetables a challenging part of meal time. As adults, most of us know how beneficial vegetables are to our overall health and wellness. We know we should all be getting at least five serves of fruit and vegetables each day. BUT actually achieving a meal time with kids eating vegetables can be more difficult than finding a moment for a peaceful hot drink.
Before we cover 5 of my top practical tips to get kids eating vegetables (and enjoying them) let me take a moment to remind you that food rejection is a NORMAL behaviour for almost all toddlers and preschoolers (although stressful for us as parents). Our little ones go through massive stages of cognitive and emotional development in the early years and as frustrating and stressful as it can be, food rejection is often a normal display of their growth and development. If nothing else, please be comforted in knowing the mum sitting beside you (and the mum writing this) has experienced food rejection from their toddler and preschooler too. This food rejection is usually temporary and is unlikely to have an impact on your child’s long term growth (Mascola et al., 2010). Of course, if at any time you are worried about your little one please seek further advice from your chosen health care professional.
Now that we know we haven’t broken our toddler/preschooler, let’s get into the 5 practical tips to get your kids eating vegetables:
Eat your vegetables. And eat them in front of your kids as often as you can. I know, I said this was about getting your kids eating vegetables and not getting you to eat yours, but your children learn SO much from observing your behaviour (aka modelling). The way you approach vegetables matters. Take a moment to reflect on how many servings of vegetables you are eating each day in front of your children. Take a moment to reflect on the variety of vegetables you are eating each day in front of your children. If you feel your veggie consumption might need some work or that your family meal times might need a little TLC, there’s nothing more motivating to prompt you than the thought of your children following suit (not to mention the health benefits).
Use plenty of PRAISE at meal times. Throw praise around like confetti. “I’m so proud of you for tasting that”, “I’m so proud of you for touching that”, “wow, it is so amazing that you tried your -insert vegetable- tonight!”. Positive reinforcement for behaviour we want to continue/grow has been shown over and over again in countless studies to be a successful approach to behaviour change. Alongside praise there are other options such as rewards, however, my suggestion is to approach this with caution. Ideally choose non-food rewards to minimise the reward (and demand for it) becoming more important to the child than the behaviour we want to increase.
Taste-test before serving and think ‘if I was a child’. Children naturally tend to avoid bitter-tasting food, and unfortunately most vegetables fit into this category. If you notice a vegetable tastes more bitter then you might consider pairing it with a food that can mask or sweeten it. For example, pair spinach with banana in a smoothie or with sweet potato in mash, or broccoli within a delicious tomato-based pasta sauce. Children are unlikely to need sugar or salt added to their meal (this is a conditioned preference learnt through exposure) so aim for whole-food-pairing over salt and sugar.
For the vegetable spotter, consider creative hiding. If your child is a keen vegetable spotter and a not-so-keen vegetable eater then hiding vegetables within their meal can be a helpful (and comforting) approach for many parents. Finely grating vegetables into sauces is a great starting point. Pumpkin, sweet potato and peeled zucchini are some of the easiest to start with as they are sweeter/less bitter (remember tip three – children are more likely to avoid bitter foods) and they also soften and combine well with sauces or meals during the cooking process. Adding grated vegetables such as pumpkin, sweet potato, and peeled zucchini to dishes such as bolognese, pasta sauce and even pancakes can be a great starting point for those difficult periods.
Don’t give up hope. If your child rejects a new vegetable it doesn’t mean they don’t like it. It simply means they likely haven’t been exposed to it often and frequently enough to develop a liking for it. There have been consistent studies showing taste exposure (for example, continuously offering food for children to taste) has an impact on children’s acceptance of food (Holley et al., 2017). If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. Approach meal times with patience and consistency and remember to eat your vegetables too.
Children often thrive on routine and familiarity, so serving the vegetable/s from the ones you know they already enjoy (even if there is only one vegetable currently on the list) will likely make meal times more enjoyable and feel more successful for everyone. When introducing a new vegetable I encourage you to consider serving it alongside something your child already eats and enjoys and introducing it on a day where they have had good sleep, are not sick, and are in a good mood.
This and SO much more is covered in thorough evidence-based and practical detail in my MEAL TIME SUCCESS program/guide, available NOW. I believe every parent is doing the best they can in the moment they are in with the resources they have available to them. With this program I simply hope to add to your parenting toolbox so that meal times can be successful, easy and stress-free (yes, it is possible!).
We can’t wait to help you achieve meal time success EVERY DAY.
Krissy Ropiha is a Certified Nutrition and Health Coach specialising in early childhood nutrition and a Psychology graduate (BScPsycHons). She is passionate about supporting, inspiring and empowering busy mums to take back control of their family’s health, get nourishing meals on the table in less than 30 minutes and achieve happy and successful family meal times.
Strive for nourishment, not perfection.
Holley, C.E., Farrow, C. and Haycraft, E. (2017). A Systematic Review of Methods for Increasing Vegetable Consumption in Early Childhood. Current Nutrition Reports, 6 (2) 157-170. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13668-017-0202-1
Mascola, A.J., Bryson, S.W. and Agras, W.S. (2010). Picky Eating During Childhood: A longitudinal study to age 11 years. Eating Behaviour 11(4) 253-257.