Most people know that children can be extremely picky when it comes to eating habits. Whether or not we are currently parents trying to tempt picky eaters, we were all children once, and probably played our fair share of “open your mouth for the choo choo train.” Perhaps it’s an aversion to greens or to the texture of foods like sweet peas, or just a battle of wills when your youngun prefers cauliflower to broccoli. Fear not. If you find yourself saying, “My child won’t eat vegetables—what can I do?” then we have some suggestions you may not have tried yet, which could lead to a blessed ceasefire at your evening meals.
The Never-Ending Battle of Getting Kids to Eat Vegetables
Children who may have been good eaters as infants, gumming up all their baby food, could be terrors by the time they’re 2-year-olds. The “terrible twos” are so-called because it’s a classic phase of learning and saying no, throwing tantrums, and inventing battlegrounds out of nothing.
During this time, your child’s palate is changing too. In fact, our palates are constantly developing. Our taste buds change because they die off and regenerate every few weeks, and this happens throughout our lifetimes.
It’s always advisable to try different foods and revisit old food enemies every once in a while. You may find that a food you used to hate you now absolutely love! Those foul and mushy green peas you remember from childhood may be sweet and bright, and the carrots that used to taste like dirt roots might be fun to crunch on with a little hummus now that you’re grown.
This is worth remembering when making your own food choices and trying to set a good example for your kids, but such an argument is not likely to hold sway against a toddler’s iron will. So what are some easier ways to get kids to eat vegetables without having to fight, bribe, or punish them? They can’t help the way they process taste, but you’ve got to feed them healthy foods. Where’s the middle ground?
My Child Won’t Eat Vegetables: What to Do with a Picky Eater
Here are some tried-and-true tips that may solve the problems at your dinner table and get your kiddos to try new foods.
1. Veggies First
If your kids are hungry while you’re still preparing dinner, let them have a snack, but only offer veggies. These are the same veggies that would be on their dinner plate anyway, so let them gobble them up first rather than as a dessert negotiator.
Consider this: when you serve a plate full of tasty chicken and yummy apple sauce next to vegetables, what’s the last to go? The veggies…maybe! If they’ve filled up on their favorites, hunger can no longer be used as a motivator. Set them up for success by putting veggies out first.
2. Serve Veggies Frozen or with a Dip
No joke with frozen veggies: not only is the taste dampened when vegetable medleys of peas, corn, and carrots are still frozen, but eating little veggie ice cubes can also make it more fun and novel.
For cooked veggies, a bit of melted cheese over broccoli goes a long way, as will some butter or bacon mixed in with spinach.
While it would be nice to get them to eat their vegetables plain, foods like peanut butter, cheese, and even dressings (if you have time to prepare homemade ones) all contribute to a healthy and balanced diet.
3. Make Food Fun
Turning eating into a fun-filled event rather than a chore, can help instill healthful habits at a young age.
- Take your kids shopping at the farmers market or grocery store and let them pick which veggies come home.
- Garden with your kids so they can see their food grow.
- Cook with your kids and let them tear lettuce, make dressings, or chop and peel (for the older ones, of course). This gives them something to do around mealtime and gets them invested in healthy eating.
- Use a mix of colors for visual appeal, and arrange the vegetables on the plate into fun shapes or towers to draw your kid’s attention.
4. Blend It Up
Smoothies at dinner can be a genius way to sneak vegetables into your kid under the guise of a treat. Similarly, blending veggies like spinach or broccoli into a favorite food like macaroni and cheese or scrambled eggs is another way to get veggies in, without having to trick your kiddo.
5. Soups, Breads, and Muffins
Brewing delicious vegetable soup is a simple, low-calorie way to add vegetables to rice, noodle, or couscous dishes. You can also use vegetable soup as the base of a sauce or for casseroles, and always swap in veggie soup for water.
Putting veggies on or in some type of bread is an ingenious way to make sure your kids are benefitting. You can turn a pita shell, burrito, sandwich, or quesadilla into a veggie-filled delight.
Here’s a perspective shift for you. When it comes to fostering a relationship between vegetables and your child, it’s less about hiding the veggies and more about including them in creative ways that help tame the taste. You want your kids to love and eat vegetables for life, right? So cultivate that relationship when they’re young.
Now, some determined youngsters will just pick the veggies out of these foods. If your child is particularly willful, vegetable muffins could be the trick you need. Mixing spinach, carrot, pumpkin, or sweet potato into banana bread or blueberry muffins can help you sidestep any fighting or power struggles.
6. Lead By Example
When you eat veggies, they eat veggies. One of the top predictors of a child’s eating habits are what he or she sees mom or dad doing first. Just as your kids try to vacuum or wash dishes because they’ve watched you do it a zillion times, they will also try to imitate your eating behaviors.
7. Encourage Positive Vibes
Some of us were raised with a rule that said what you didn’t finish for dinner, you’d have to eat for breakfast. Most dietitians agree that this does not lead to the desired results. Attaching negative experiences to foods is more likely to solidify food aversions rather than cure them.
A better compromise to make with your child (and yourself) is the “one-bite” rule. Even if they reject it over and over again, requiring your kid to take one full bite of a food before allowing them to say they don’t want it may feel a little wasteful, but it’s also a proven strategy for familiarizing kids with foods.
Remember that their taste buds change frequently, and so a food rejected over and over will someday taste different with that one bite, and you’ll have won the war.
On that day, and for all the others in between, be sure to reward your child’s good behavior. Thank them for taking their one bite, allow them to have preferences and make their own small decisions, and respect their opinions even if picky eating is frustrating to you, because that sort of respect from a parent lasts a lifetime.
Vegetables, Victuals, and Victories
You’ll have to find your own balance between providing and parenting of course, but hopefully these tips can help bridge the gap and inspire tactics that actually work and benefit the whole family. Grow from tricking to teaching, to having kids who know how to toe the line when it comes to eating the vegetables that keep them strong and thriving.