One of the top questions I get from parents is “How can I make my kids eat more vegetables?” And my answer is “You can’t make your child do anything! But you can create an environment where they are more likely to eat them!” Let me explain.
My best analogy is bedtime. In the same way that we can’t “make our kids fall asleep”, we also can’t “make our kids eat veggies”. But we can set them up for success in both situations.
If your child threw a tantrum because it was bedtime, you would still follow through with bedtime routine. You wouldn’t let your 4 year old stay up until midnight watching a movie just because they didn’t want to go to bed. You would give them a calm bath, turn on white noise, put lavender oil in their diffuser, read them a story, give them their favorite stuffed animal, and turn out the light. If they came out of their room you would tell them it’s time to stay in their bed, but ultimately they decide when they actually fall asleep. And no matter how many times they came out of their bedroom, you wouldn’t change your mind and let them stay up to watch TV just because they don’t want to sleep. You know as their parent, they need sleep. But you still can’t make them go to sleep. You are only able to set them up for success, so that is what you consistently do.
In the same way, we can’t force a child to eat. But we can involve them in food preparation, create fun experiences with veggies, add veggies into their favorite foods, offer veggies at times when they are most hungry, and consistently remember their role and our role in the division of responsibility at meal and snack times.
Here are my top 10 tips to support and encourage you in this journey:
Tip 1: It takes MANY exposures to a food before a child knows if they actually like it. An exposure can be seeing the food on a plate, helping to prepare the food, touching the food, tasting the food, and/or actually swallowing the food. For example, a child may help to tear spinach leaves up but never ingest any…this is an exposure. A child may pick up a piece of broccoli and touch and top feeling soft and spongy and the bottom feeling firm. This is an exposure. I child may lick a piece of watermelon but then set it back down. This is an exposure. Continued exposures in a safe, non pressured environment are is one of the best practices that will lead to a “well rounded eater”.
Tip 2: Do not get caught up in meals vs. snacks. Ideally we will capitalize on our children’s hunger and offer veggies at their “hungriest/most alert” times. Put a veggie tray out mid morning while you play and enjoy some veggies with them. Or have one ready for when they come home from daycare or school and you may find that more veggies are consumed than ever would be on their supper plate. Perhaps your children are hungry in the car on the way home from school or day care…this is a perfect opportunity for some diced peppers and sliced cucumbers!
Tip 3: Include your children in grocery shipping and meal prep. There are a lot of fun ways for children to help in the kitchen and many of them surround veggie prep. You can see a more extensive, age-specific list here.
Tip 4: Offer dips. Children LOVE to dip. Whether it is hummus, guacamole, Greek yogurt, a nut/seed butter, or your favourite salad dressing…kids LOVE to dip!
Tip 5: Help your child sort their thoughts out. When your child expresses that they do not like something, it could be more that they are worried what it will taste like and or feel like and do not feel safe to take the risk of trying it. We have had lots of fun in our house with “Today I tried…” which creates a non-pressured adventure of trying new things. You can find out more about that here.
Tip 6: Recognize “normal” behaviour. Food jags will occur and are expected. This means that young children love a food one day and hate it the next. This is most typical from ages 15 to 36 months, but certainly can still happen in pre-school years and beyond! It is part of normal development and one of many ways that these adorable tiny humans can drive parents crazy by exercising their autonomy and reaching to see where limits lie. The truth is that the best thing we can do is support our children in this journey. The “division of responsibility” is key to dealing with food jags and “picky eater” behavior in general. It is our responsibility as parents to offer healthy food throughout the day. It is the child’s responsibility if they will eat it or not. child’s responsibility if they choose to eat. That means ideals no filler foods like gold fish and puffs and ideally no “short order cook”. Children will soon learn that no other options are coming, so they may want to eat what is in front of them. This process can take time, and there may be some meals that end up in the garbage, but overall it leads to well rounded eaters and that is the ultimate goal for well rounded nutrition.
Tip 7: Please do not use food as a reward or give punishment around food. A child who is lead to believe that they are “good” or “bad” with relationship to food may end up on the path of emotional eating. If a child does not eat their broccoli, this is not grounds for punishment. And if they do, this is not ground for “deserving” a brownie. When it comes to eating healthy food, a kind word of encouragement is great but there is never need for feelings of guilt of reward.
Tip 8: Lead by example. Are you eating vegetables in front of your kids? Are you reaching for them while you make supper? Are you sitting with your children at lunch and eating a salad? Even if it does not seem like it, your children are watching EVERYTHING you do. Whether it is putting your coat away, making exercise a part of each day, eating your vegetables, or sitting down to pray. They see it all and the best thing we can do to teach our children is lead by example.
Tip 9: Try smoothies, smoothie bowls, spinach donuts, and zucchini cookies. These are not direct means of having the child eat a veggie on its own, but it is still a way to introduce flavours and increase a child’s intake of new foods. Trying a green smoothie bowl may help the child feel more comfortable to try other green foods. My new cookbook Super Food for Super Kidsis designed to help get kids in the kitchen more and show them all the fun ways that veggies and fruit can be added to their favourite foods.
Tip 10: Last but not least, realize that every child will have a few “I don’t like foods”. I know I do and you likely do as well. Just keep offering all foods and over time it will become obvious which ones are starting to stick and while ones may be “off the table”.
So, in summary…we are looking to offer veggies at times when are children are most hungry, involve children in meal preparation, keep meal times low stress and focus on the bigger picture, offer all members at the table the same foods (no short order cook), and last but not least lead by example. And please…DON’T GIVE UP…you are doing a great job!