If you dream of carefree meals where your child happily munches her veggies without a single complaint or bribe, you’re not alone. Perhaps you’ve resorted to covering carrots with cheese sauce and cutting cucumbers into cute shapes or sneaking pureed spinach into the brownie mix just to avoid conflict and ensure your child gets something nutritious.
Well, douse, carve and conceal no more.
According to a study of 250 preschoolers led by researchers at the University of Leeds, the secret to getting kids to eat vegetables is offering a wide variety – and simply serving them more often. The study also revealed 2- and 3-year-olds were harder to please than younger kids, and kids tended to enjoy vegetables their mothers frequently ate. Favorites included: carrots, broccoli, peas, corn and cucumbers.
Think your kiddo can’t go cold turkey, or raw veggie, just yet? Read on for expert advice to pump up their produce consumption and avoid broccoli battles.
Get your child involved
“It’s surprising to me hiding vegetables was ever suggested,” says Lisa McDowell, MS, RD, CSSD, director of clinical nutrition at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor. As a mom of two and the team sports nutritionist for the Detroit Red Wings, she’s familiar with getting kids and adults to eat healthy veggies that help a body perform better.
“I think it’s far more sustainable and probably sets the child up for a healthier lifestyle long term if you are involving the child with the shopping.” Visit a farmers market or grocery store with your child when it’s not very busy. Let them see and feel different vegetables. Have them pick something they want to try. Once home, your kid can wash the veggies and help get things ready.
Have fun with food
Try reading a book about nibbling the alphabet, like Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert. McDowell suggests a produce shopping game where “you pick the green and I’ll pick the red food,” or filling your shopping cart with veggies to make soup – a favorite with her kids. It can be even more exciting when you experience a new food together. Cut a spaghetti squash in half, remove the seeds, season and bake. When it’s cooked, run a fork inside to create squash “noodles.”
Explain Food Is Fuel
Kids also need to learn the benefits of healthy foods. “Eating the rainbow is the message we want to give to kids,” says McDowell. Different colored veggies offer a variety of health benefits. “Tell your kids their favorite super hero eats veggies to be strong and super,” she suggests. Let an older child know spinach can improve blood flow to help them run longer, and they may be more apt to eat a few bites. If a child resists, remind her she needs “growing food” to feel good, and that “nobody’s going to perform at their best on just a Rice Krispies treat,” she says.
Set a good example
The younger you start feeding them veggies, the better. And showing kids you eat a wide variety of healthy fruits and vegetables probably has the biggest impact on whether your child accepts them or not. “If mom and dad pick the French fries, their child is not likely to select a baked potato,” McDowell says. But, remember children don’t need the same portion size as an adult. A kindergartner only needs about three strips of a sweet pepper, not a whole one.
Understand Likes And Dislikes
Kids may refuse to eat veggies for reasons parents don’t get. Brussels sprouts may be too bitter. Cooked carrots too mushy. Listen when your child tells you why. If taste or texture is an issue, see if they’ll try a milder substitute, like sweet peppers or raw carrots, instead. It may take repeated attempts to find what works. “Just because it fails once, doesn’t mean it will fail a third time. So don’t give up.”
Pick your battles
“My son is a very picky vegetable eater,” McDowell admits. “There’s no reason to battle at Thanksgiving and say ‘you must eat your carrots soft and roasted’ if your son only likes them raw,” she says. “When my kids tell me ‘I don’t like it this way,’ I respect that and try find things they like their way.” If they must eat a vegetable, bring a few raw carrots or their favorite veggie to granny’s house. It’ll ensure your child gets something they like and help reduce mealtime mayhem.
This post was originally published in November 2013 and has been updated.