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My older son wants to be a chef. We work to encourage his interest in cooking. He has a monthly subscription to Raddish, the kid’s cooking club. We watch a lot of Food Network shows. He cooks with me frequently. As a result, though, he is super-knowledgeable about food, and critical at times of my efforts in the kitchen. He’ll frequently comment that something doesn’t have enough salt or is lacking in texture.
My younger son is critical in a different way, pulling out the tiniest speck of food and asking “What is this?” Both boys are good eaters with relatively adventurous pallets, but like many kids, when mealtime comes, they gravitate toward meats and starches rather than vegetables. I’m committed to doing my best to feed them a healthy and varied diet, though, and I’ve developed some tricks. Here are 25 of my favorite tactics for encouraging kids to eat their vegetables.
Start *really* early introducing veggies
- Check your own food preferences while pregnant and breastfeeding: Studies have shown that babies form taste preferences in the womb as the composition of a mother’s amniotic fluid changes with what she eats. Breastfeeding babies also are exposed to new flavors since they experience changes in their mother’s milk depending on her diet. Make sure that your diet is as varied as it can be during pregnancy and the early days of motherhood (and realize that many of us lived on crackers during that time, and managed to get our kids to eat veggies anyway).
- Explore baby led weaning: Baby led weaning is a method of feeding, whereby instead of feeding kids blended purées as their first foods, parents introduce easy-to-gnaw chunks of food for babies to experiment with. Many theorize that exposing a child to unique tastes and textures at this stage makes them more adventurous later.
Use subterfuge to sneak in the veggies
- Blend them up. I never serve a pot of soup in our house without using my immersion blender in it first. An unblended pot of soup will have my younger son asking why there are green things in it, and my older son reminding me that he doesn’t like beans. Blended soup is just yummy. This trick also works at breakfast time when making smoothies. It works in the summertime making popsicles. Pretty much any liquid, sauce, pesto, etc. can have a few extra veggies snuck in there. Try carrots or squash in your marinara, kale or spinach in your smoothies, and beets or avocado in your popsicles. Jessica Seinfeld published a great book several years back that included lots of sneaky suggestions.
- Chop them up in very tiny pieces, and add them into meat. This one works for carnivorous dads, also. Meatballs, meat loaves, and burgers made of ground turkey, ground chicken, ground beef, ground sausage, or ground salmon can easily hide a few sneaky veggies. In my house, through, the youngest will dissect the meat and pull out the pieces unless they are very, very small.
- Bake them into muffins, breads, or cakes. We all know zucchini bread, pumpkin muffins, and carrot cake, but you could also make butternut squash bread, spinach muffins, or sweet potato cake instead.
- Shred them into pancakes. You can make vegetable pancakes out of lots of different vegetables, including potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, and zucchini. Paula Deen has a good basic recipe.
- Mix them with cream cheese in a food processor. Your kids can then scoop this cheesy goodness up with carrots, cucumber slices, or crackers.
Make veggies extra yummy
- Try roasting your veggies. This really brings out the sweetness of a vegetable and makes the texture soft and easier for a kid to eat.
- Make use of butter, salt and pepper, garlic, Parmesan cheese, or bacon. ‘Nuff said.
- Make use of dips and sauces. Ranch dressing, ketchup, mild salsa, French dressing, or cheese sauce might make veggies more appealing to your kids. My kids love to dip.
- Use kid-friendly cooking techniques. My kids like their veggies a lot more when they are can be breaded and baked or cut into chips or fries. Have you tried Brussels sprout chips or kale chips? They’re delicious.
- Add them into other favorite foods. Sometimes we have success adding a veggie on top of a pizza or hidden inside a quesadilla. If I chop them up extra small, I might not get reminded that these things taste better without “all that other stuff” I added.
- Experiment with international dishes. Greek, Indian, and Asian cuisines (among others) have lots of interesting ways to use vegetables. The different spices and preparations might appeal to even the most reluctant vegetable eaters.
Make eating veggies fun
- Serve a hard-to-eat vegetable. Some veggies, like artichokes and edamame are an adventure to eat. Try eating them together as a family.
- Play pretend as you eat. Your kids might enjoy eating ‘carrot coins’ or ‘broccoli trees’. When they were toddlers, my kids had these plates that made eating into a sort of fantasy board game.
- Make their veggies look fun. You can arrange them in a rainbow, a face, an animal, or a heart. If you want to go really crazy, you can check Pinterest for inspiration. I saved some of my favorite ideas to my “Kid Food” board.
- Make a game of purchasing and sampling new veggies. My friend Emily had a wonderful idea one summer to do a Supermarket Vegetable Challenge. Each week on their trip to the store, the kids picked a new vegetable they’d never tried. They then sampled the veggie both raw and cooked and rated it on a scale of 1-5. At the end of the summer, the kids had a whole list of new vegetables they’d tried, which they’d ranked according to their favorite flavors and favorite preparations.
- Freeze them: Many kids get a kick out of eating frozen peas, corn, or other veggies even if they don’t like the unfrozen versions.
Get your kids involved in the process
- Enlist their help to grow the veggies. Vegetables like baby lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes are relatively easy to grow. If you don’t have a yard in which to plant them, they can be grown in small containers on a balcony or patio. Kids will enjoy the process of digging in the dirt to plant something and watch it grow. They might even enjoy eating those tomatoes they helped create.
- Have them help with the cooking. My kids are always more invested in a meal that they helped cook. (And of course everything they make is delicious). I often have the boys help with everything from washing veggies to peeling and chopping them. We have these knives that are safe for kids to use. My six-year-old reads from the recipe, and everyone is a little more excited to try the dish that we all worked on when it comes out. Even very small kids can do something simple like work the salad spinner or tear lettuce.
Other things to consider
- Serve your kids veggies first. Because my kids LOVE meat and grains, I will sometimes serve the veggies first. This works especially well if you put vegetables on the table as an appetizer before dinner when the kids are really hungry.
- Appeal to their vanity. Remind your kids that eating vegetables will make them bigger and stronger. Many young children are very impatient to grow and will jump at the chance to help the process along.
- Set an example. It goes without saying that if you are reluctant to eat vegetables, your kids won’t be inclined to appreciate them either. Let your kids see you eating your own veggies with enthusiasm.
- Stay firm. If you don’t provide anything else and the child is hungry, he will eat the vegetables. This seems harsh, but my children are not in serious danger of starving, so I feel comfortable taking a hard line on this one from time to time.
- Keep trying. Ask your children to try one bite. Don’t force them to clean their plates or bribe them with desserts. If they’re very resistant to a particular food, try again another day. Research shows kids have to be exposed to a new food 8-10 times for it to be accepted.
There you have it—some of my favorite strategies for getting the recommended serving of veggies into my kids each day. How many fruits and vegetables should our kids be eating in a day? According to Build Healthy Kids children between the ages of two and three should be eating one cup of veggies and one cup of fruit every day. Between the ages of four and eight, the serving size for both fruit and vegetables increases to 1.5 cups.
As you implement these strategies, remember that kids’ mouths are much more sensitive than those of adults. They are particularly reactive to bitterness and particularly fond of sugar. There are some fascinating theories as to why this is. One study suggests that because sugar is a component of so many high-energy foods, hormones in children’s growing bones power the craving for more and more sweetness to provide the fuel to grow.
So, get creative and do your best to get some veggies in your child, but know that you are not alone in your struggle to encourage healthy eating—we’re all fighting biology here.