Does getting your kids to eat vegetables seem like an impossible task? Is it making your mealtimes stressful? Here are my top 10 tips for getting kids to eat their vegetables stress free!
1. Lead by example
The old saying ‘monkey see, monkey do’ absolutely rings true with vegetables, we need to practice what we preach & role model enjoying vegetables to encourage our littlies to do the same and to normalise this behaviour. Studies indicate children of parents who eat more vegetables are more likely to eat more vegetables themselves.
2. Positive, positive, positive
Create as many positive experiences with kids and vegetables as possible, it may be as simple as singing a song about vegetables, reading books, growing vegetables, playing with vegetable toys, drawing vegetables, vegetable colouring in, vegetable craft, etc etc . Some parents also find it helpful to arrange vegetables on the plate to create a picture or cut vegetables into fun shapes, I personally don’t do this because a) I’m not that creative & b) I’m too lazy & I know it is not something I would be able to maintain but that too can be an effective strategy for some.
3. Serving vegetables regularly across the day
All too often we rely on dinner time to get most of our vegetable serves in, but unless we eat a mountain of vegetables at this one meal it is likely that we’ll fall short. Therefore it is important for both parents & children to be served vegetables at all/most meals & snacks across the day to increase vegetable intake. This seems pretty obvious the more opportunities to eat vegetables, the more likely we are to eat more vegetables, but often we forget or it seems too hard to give vegetables at other times, which leads me to my next point.
4. Have vegetables available in a ready to eat form
Make it an easy option to serve vegetables to our kids and importantly to ourselves, it might be as simple as keeping a container with chopped vegie sticks in the fridge, using vegetables in baked goods such as muffins, mini quiches, zucchini slice, pikelets, making extra vegies at the evening meal for leftovers, homemade vegetable crisps etc. Also consider the effort involved in eating i.e. eating hard carrot sticks can seem like hard work for some kids, therefore cutting them thinner or having a roasted version may be a more suitable alternative.
5. Get kids involved
Involving kids in meal preparation can be really powerful i.e.
a. Getting kids to choose a vegetable at the supermarket can give them a sense of control and also positive responsibility.
b. Involving kids in the meal preparation i.e. chopping up or peeling vegetables [check out Foost for some great kid friendly knives], adding vegetables to the pot or pan, asking them to name the vegetables, what colour are the vegetables or simply allowing them to explore with them without the pressure of it being on their plate. I am amazed at how many times my daughter has tried vegetables when 'helping' to meal prep that she has otherwise refused when previously served on her plate.
6. Avoid force feeding your kids
Too much pressure to eat can actually be counterproductive and create a negative association with mealtimes. Also be aware of over encouraging kids to eat vegetables or focussing on just the vegetables because what happens when we tell our kids not to draw on the wall…….. Encouraging kids to eat vegetables & the kids refusing resulting in meltdowns is stressful for everyone involved, rather than telling them to eat it, talk about the food i.e. what it is, what it tastes like, what colour it is, how it grows, what it feels like etc. If they refuse to eat it, that’s ok, save the leftovers & use them at a later meal or in cooking and count it as a win because you as a parent have provided a nourishing meal and exposed your kids to vegetables which in the long term will help to improve their acceptance of vegetables.
They say variety is the spice of life and variety with our vegies is important as well. Remember the goal is for the whole family to enjoy vegetables so prepare them in a tasty way, steamed broccoli everyday of the week will soon get old for everyone. Roast them, add herbs & spices, sprinkle with cheese, add them to pizza, barbecue them, add them to curries, pasta etc. Also different coloured vegetables have different nutrient profiles, so a variety with types of vegetables is important to maximise nutrition. It can be really easy to just give kids their favourite vegetables, but regular exposure to different types can help to build acceptance. It can take up to 10 times for children to accept that a certain food is on their plate and another 10 times of exposure for them to eat it, so persistence is key, but remember no pressure.
8. Having set and consistent mealtimes
Consistent mealtimes has also been shown to improve vegetable intake. There are likely to be a variety of factors involved in this including the avoidance of grazing patterns which can result in children not being hungry at mealtimes therefore less likely to eat, also less structure and planning around meals and snacks may influence the types of foods provided i.e. there may be a reliance on more convenient, processed/packaged options. Kids also thrive on structure & routine as they know what to expect and mealtime routines are the same.
9. Allow choice
This may be as simple as allowing children to choose what they want to eat from their plate or encouraging them to choose which vegetables to prepare for that meal or allowing children to choose what to put on their plate from a family style meal i.e. the individual elements of the meal served on platters at the table. This technique can empower kids & give them a sense of control as well as taking some of the pressure of adults.
10. Hiding Vegetables
Now this can be a very effective strategy but it is really important that this is not the only strategy. There are a wide variety of meals which work perfectly with grated vegetables i.e. mince based meals, baked goods, quiche etc however it is still important to offer & provide children vegetables in a state that resembles the vegetable to build acceptance, because we know that this can take time.
Now these tips are not the magic bullet that will mean your kids will instantly enjoy every vegetable (if only!) but consistency with how we create positive experiences and exposure to vegetables does undoubtedly improve children's acceptance of vegetables. As parents there is no denying it is our responsibility to provide nourishing food for our children, they may not always eat it, but remember to congratulate yourself for giving them the opportunity.
For more tips and useful resources check out a few of my favourite sites below. For individualised advice or tailored tips for fussy eaters see a specialist healthcare professional.
Healthy Eating for children- Australian Dietary Guidelines
Vegetables: how to encourage your child to eat more- Raising Children Network
How to get your kids to eat fruit and veggies- Queensland Government
Vegetable snack ideas- Nutrition
Dr Jennifer Cohen- The Fussy Eating Doctor