Getting kids to eat more vegetables must be on the wish list for virtually every parent. Who doesn’t want the kids to enjoy their greens and benefit from the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants they provide?
Studies have been conducted on preschoolers to see what influences their food choices and what we can do to encourage them to choose more fruit and vegetables. Fascinating stuff, and although much of it is common sense, the difference early role modelling and education can make is worth knowing.
So, how do we chase the holy grail of greenery in our own houses?
1. Lead by example
I would say this is the number one tool parents have in the arsenal. Kids are far more likely to do what we do than do what we say (think of all our habits we see repeated in our mini-mes!). Having our kids watch us eat a wide variety of fruit and vegetables with pleasure affects their approach to greenery. If you don’t like to eat vegetables yourself, don’t panic, maybe you can learn to eat them together. Can we learn to like new things? Absolutely. The science tells us this.
2. Keep the exposure up
This is at mealtimes but can also be done away from the table. Age-appropriate ways to put vegetables front and centre include:
- Going shopping and naming all the vegetables
- Playing with vegetables – vegetable stamps, using dried lentils, etc
- Making vegetables from play dough
- Playing shop or cooking
- Talking about vegetables and making them an important part of routines.
Repeated exposure builds a comfort level with food. Doing this away from the table can reduce anxiety for children who struggle to eat vegetables at dinner. If your child eats vegetables but you’d like to see them challenge themselves with more variety, then make sure you’re consistently serving what you want to see eaten.
Finding fun ways to explore vegetables:
- Drawing or colouring in pictures
- Reading books about them
- Watching videos of other kids eating vegetables. Check this site out
- Learning how and where the vegetables grow
- Singing songs about vegetables
- Using apps that focus on increasing vegetable consumption. What child doesn’t want additional computer time?
Studies have shown that not only are preschoolers more likely to choose vegetables if they read or sing about them, but that these effects carry on for months, and even years, afterwards. For older children, the effect may not be as direct but it’s definitely part of a long-term strategy to encourage our kids to eat more vegetables.
4. Increase the variety
Getting our kids experiencing a wide variety of vegetables is a great gift. We can do this by:
- Going to the markets and choosing a vegetable of the week
- Having a competition to see how many new vegetables we can test
- Doing an internet search for vegetables eaten in different cultures and then cooking them
- Doing a rainbow challenge and seeing how many different coloured vegetables we can find to eat
5. Create choice
Asking the children to help choose the vegetables when shopping or for dinner is a great way to empower them.
6. Grow your own
Kids love to grow things and you can propagate plants in the smallest of apartments. Quick-grow sprouts are perfect for the windowsill and don’t take long to see action. Sprouts are also a fabulous source of nutrients, so a great addition to the diet.
7. Hit the kitchen
Getting the kids involved in the cooking is a big part of building comfort with foods. It helps with exposure, education and also gives an enormous sense of pride to children when they create a dish. That involvement is a very powerful motivator when it comes time to eat.
8. Serving up goodness
Vegetables are more likely to be rejected than other foods. How can we tackle this?
- Don’t take a refusal as a ‘no, never again’. We have to continually serve up the things we want eaten. If it’s not on the plate, it can’t get eaten!
- Repeated exposure does give our children a basic comfort level with vegetables, so the more we serve them, the more chance of them being accepted
- Having the kids taste new vegetables and continue to taste them builds familiarity and more likelihood of acceptance
- Vegetables are super versatile. Each version can be totally different in taste and texture and, therefore, appeal. I constantly look for new incarnations of vegetables. It prevents boredom and can take a previously disliked vegetable and make it a winner – broccoli burgers anyone?
- Presentation. Having the vegetables look amazing can alter the way they are perceived. We eat with our eyes first, so something that wows us visually is more likely to be eaten. You can up the ante with some food designs, or let the children create their own vegetable art.
- Rebranding. Giving vegetables fun names like X-ray carrots has been proven to work. Or change the name of a dish. I used to make cheese and vegetable fritters, add olives as eyes and call them cheesy spiders.
9. Add veges to your baking
Vegetables on their own can be a challenge for children so, if they are struggling to eat them on their own, we can add them to recipes. I’m not an advocate of hiding vegetables, but I love using them wherever I can, such as in muffins, frittata, fritters, quiches, on pizza, in cookies and cakes, slices or scones.
Vegetables can add a lovely moistness to cakes or a crunch to a pizza. Remember the golden rule when trying something new for your child: go very easy on the volume initially to gain ‘buy in’ and then gradually increase the percentage in a dish.
10. Pair veges with something tasty
Vegetables are often more enticing if matched with a beloved partner. Brussels sprouts and bacon, cauliflower and cheese, mushrooms in butter. I am a firm believer that using favourite dips, toppings or flavours to build a love of vegetables is a great middle step. If initially it has to be drowned in cheese, that’s OK!
Also, not pairing with a slam-dunk winner – like the favourite nuggets/pasta/chips can also make the vegetables comparatively more appealing.
Serving vegetables on their own before there is anything else available (for example, a first course salad) can work magic. The children are hungry, they want to eat and so graze on the dish in front of them.
11. Avoid comparison
Vegetables can be a tough ask when put up against packet snacks designed to have us begging for more. Having less sweet, salty and moreish snacks available and more vegetables can often tip the balance in favour of the vegetables. Carrot versus ice cream is a no-brainer. But having crudities and dip as the choice for afternoon tea makes them that much more desirable. Having vegetables as the main event has been shown to increase overall consumption – especially if this is away from the pressure that dinner often imposes.
12. Swap up the texture
Soup has proven to be a superb way of increasing vegetable intake. It’s so easy to pack a soup full of variety and in fact, the range of ingredients can be what makes the flavour amazing. Kids not sold on soup? How about purees. These can be loads of fun to make and again chock full of vegetables. Or an on-trend smoothie. Use fruit to sweeten and it’s possible to add lots of vegetables without compromising the flavour.
When it comes to getting our kids eating more vegetables there are no magic bullets. There are long-term strategies that we practice consistently that over time, pay off and produce those vegetable-loving kids we dream of. I know this from personal experience. My 12-year-old turned to me a few weeks ago and said words I thought I would never hear: “Mum, I loved those onions, but next time can you just do them on their own without mixing anything else in”!
Judith is mother to two boys and lives in beautiful, if windy, Wellington. She specialises in working with ‘picky eaters’ and runs a variety of courses that teach parents how to feed their children green food, new food and family food. For a wealth of information about selective eating go to www.theconfidenteater.com or join us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/theconfidenteater/
She has also spent the last 12 years as a Healthy Food Advocate working with individual parents, schools and community groups to improve the food environment for all our kids. For updates www.theartofnutrition.co.nz