7 Steps to Encourage your Child to Eat Vegetables
How to get kids to eat vegetables…..one of the most common feeding struggles! The short answer is you can’t “get” your kid to eat vegetables…or anything! However, there’s a lot you can do that will make it more likely for your child to decide to taste new foods and actually enjoy them!
In this post, I’ll discuss why common tactics like bribing, rewarding or hiding veggies don’t work in the long term. And I’ll also share some tips that will encourage your child to eat vegetables and some recipe ideas.
But first of all….
Why do kids hate vegetables?
This might be an exaggeration. Many kids like vegetables! But if you’re feeding a picky eater, vegetables are one of the most challenging foods for young kids to enjoy.
Why? Kids naturally tend to prefer sweet foods – or quick, easy energy sources (hello sugar and white carbs!). So, it’s common for children to enjoy fruit, but shun more bitter vegetables. In addition, vegetables can also be tougher to physically chew and swallow, as many of them are very hard and crunchy.
So what happens if your kid never eats vegetables?
This may come as a shock. But it is possible for your child to get the nutrients you need without vegetables!
This is because fruit and veggies contain many of the same nutrients. For example, your child can find folate, vitamin C and fibre in both fruit and vegetables.
So you can relax a bit if your child likes fruit. And despite what you hear from “The Dirty Dozen,” you don’t have to worry about pesticides on your child’s apples or strawberries!
If your child eats very little produce and a supplement would make you feel better, you could try Juice Plus supplements (affiliate link).
Should I use hidden veggie recipes?
There are whole cookbooks based on sneaking pureed vegetables into your children’s food.
In theory, it sounds like a good idea- your child will get their veggies without even knowing, hence saving the battle.
It’s ok to boost the nutrition in food with vegetables. But I want your child to know that this is a chocolate zucchini muffin or that it’s spinach that makes the green monster smoothie green.
Hiding the food doesn’t allow your child to experience that particular food. And learn to like (or dislike!) it on their own.
Besides, at some point, they will also probably figure you out – possibly leading to distrust of the food you serve. And therefore a stronger dislike of the hidden food.
Sneaking food into your child is not aligned with the “Division of Responsibility”
The Division of Responsibility is the cornerstone to creating a healthy relationship with food for your child. Here are the basics: caregivers choose what is food offered, where, and when. And the child chooses how much, or even if they eat.
If the parent sneaks foods into the child’s diet, the child really isn’t deciding IF he eats the food. You are. I know….you don’t think it will work for your picky eater, but check out Sarah’s story here.
Can I bribe my child with dessert if he eats his vegetables?
If your child has to finish their veggies to get dessert, this is just telling them the veggies are super gross. And puts the dessert up on a pedestal. Likely creating a sweet tooth, possibly for life! Read more about managing kids and sweets here.
Same goes for the 1-bite or 3-bite rule. Don’t do it.
What about praising or using a reward chart for my kid if they eat vegetables?
To answer this question, I wanted to share a study examining whether kids ate more veggies if you rewarded them.
This took place in Belgium and the researchers looked at 98 preschool-aged children. they gave the kids a variety of veggies and found out the least-liked veggie was chicory (a bitter-tasting vegetable). So the authors used chicory as the studied vegetable.
The preschool children were offered a bowl of steamed chicory twice a week. The kids were split them into three groups:
1) The first group was simply offered the vegetable.
2) The second group was offered the vegetable, along with the promise of a reward (a toy or a sticker) if they ate the chicory
3) The third group was offered verbal praise for eating the vegetable.
Then the researchers did a follow-up test eight weeks later. They found that in the group that was just repeatedly offered the vegetable (with no extra reward), 81% rated that they liked the chicory. Then 68% of those that were rewarded with a sticker or a toy liked the vegetable and 75% who were rewarded with verbal praise liked the vegetable.
This helps to show that rewarding (which is seen as pressure) actually decreases your kid’s likelihood of actually eating and enjoying the vegetable.
The best thing you can do to get your kids to eat their vegetables and enjoy them is to expose them repeatedly to it over and over. With no pressure at all.
Beyond the piles of research that show this to be true, I’ve seen it work myself with my children.
Once, I offered my family sliced cucumbers with dinner, and this is what happened. My then-three-year-old looked and them and said “No. I’m not eating these.” And I said, “okay.” Nothing else.
And he ended up eating six slices! Yet if I had said, “You have to take a bite” or “You have to eat one piece before you have dessert,” there likely would have been screams & fighting.
And maybe he would have taken a bite, but I highly doubt it. And if he did, it would’ve been just one. So, by removing that pressure, he ended up eating more of the cucumber. Give it a try!
Tips to encourage your child to eat vegetables:
- Involve your child: Grow a garden (or even a windowsill pot) of vegetables. Visit the farmer’s market and talk to a farmer about how they grow their carrots. Pick out a new vegetable to try at the grocery store. Wash the lettuce. Involving kids in the process of growing/buying/preparing vegetables counts as exposure. And it will encourage them to taste the food. Foost knives are a great tool for getting kids started in the kitchen. Use the code FirstStepNurtrition10 for 10% off of my affiliate link.
- Offer the fruit/veggie when your child is hungriest, and most likely to eat them. This could be snack time, or as an “appetizer” during the witching hour before dinner.
- Give the fruit or veggie a funny name. Studies show that if you give a vegetable a catchy name (like “super-sight carrots”), children are more likely to eat them. And eat more of them.
- Be a good role model. Let your child see you eat fruits & veggies – your kids will eat more veggies themselves! Expand your palate. Someone is watching you! You can also try offering these foods with other children around, as kids like to copy each other.
- Serve veggies with a dip or sauce. Everyone must admit that celery tastes better with peanut butter, and carrots taste better with dip. Sure, you may get your child licking off the dip…..at least it’s a step that they’re putting the vegetable into their mouth!
- Try and try again. Children can have a fear of new things, called “neophobia.” They also have changing tastes. It may take up to 15 (or more!) tries before your child will choose to eat the food. So offer the food whenever you are eating it.
- Play with food outside of a meal or snack time. Check out my Mr. Potato Head on Global! There are lots of food play activity ideas online. This can be especially helpful if you have a sensory-sensitive child, who doesn’t like certain textures. It gives them a chance to play and feel the food. And it’s another way to expose your child to food – with zero pressure to eat it, as it’s not time to eat!
Vegetable recipes for kids
Most veggies don’t need much of a recipe. Steam them and add some butter and salt!
Here are a few other basic ideas:
- Melt a cheese sauce on top of broccoli.
- Bake kale into salted crunchy kale chips.
- Roast Brussel sprouts with maple syrup and butter.
- Cut beets, parsnips, sweet potatoes into fry or chip-shape (mandolins are great for this) and bake them. Don’t forget to serve with ketchup :).
- Some kids may prefer to eat veggies like peas and corn straight out of the freezer, especially if they have texture sensory issues (frozen has the same texture throughout).
Want more tips on feeding your picky eaters? Watch my free training: “How to teach kids to try new foods without struggles at dinnertime.”
Founder of First Step Nutrition | Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Jen believes raising happy, well-nourished eaters who have a healthy relationship with food doesn't have to be a battle! She is an author and speaker with 18 years of experience specializing in family nutrition and helps parents teach their kids to try new foods without yelling, tricking, or bribing.