How to Encourage Your Children to Enjoy Fruits & Vegetables

The question comes up more than you know –  countless emails flood my inbox from mothers wondering exactly the same thing: How do I get my kids to eat vegetables? I struggle in my response because I do not have a picky eater. My little guy enjoys a variety of foods from spicy tom yum gung to kombucha, from asparagus to zucchini, and he rarely turns his nose up at anything.

Before delving into how to get children to eat their vegetables, we should change our perspective a touch. We should focus not on how to persuade our children to simply eat their vegetables; rather we should focus on how to encourage our children to enjoy vegetables. After all, we eat the foods we enjoy. And nothing will perpetuate a three-year-old’s innate obstinacy quite like maternal nagging.

Getting Kids to Enjoy Vegetables: Start Early Really Early

Breastfeed your babies, and breastfeed your children until they are ready to wean themselves which, I might add, rarely occurs naturally before age 2. As any mother who has breastfed a food-intolerant baby knows too well, the foods you eat make their way to your milk and into your baby’s belly. When a breastfeeding mother eats a varied diet, countless components of the foods she eats season her milk – however subtly. In this way, a breastfed baby is exposed to wide and various flavors before a single vegetable touches his or her lips. Breastfed babies favor and acquire tastes for a greater variety of foods than babies fed on formula1. As a breastfeeding mother, make sure to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables yourself. Breastfed babies of mothers who consistently eat a variety of fruits and vegetables develop a preference for fruits and vegetables2.

Once you begin to introduce solid foods to your baby, continue to offer a variety of fruits and vegetables and a variety of tastes and textures. Your baby may reject green beans, spinach or other foods, but repeatedly offering a variety of foods usually leads to acceptance and eventually preference for those foods.
In introducing solids to my son, we took a baby-led approach (after a much failed two weeks of preparing his baby food, mashes and purees). That is, we simply fed him the foods we were eating – a stalk of steamed broccoli to chew, a handful of rice pilaf, some lovely orange balls of salmon roe, a whole ripe pear. In this manner, he was exposed to a great variety of tastes and, more importantly, textures in the last 6 months leading up to his first birthday. Despite what you may be inclined to think, this approach does not pose a great risk of choking as babies are unlikely to be capable of moving food from the front of the mouth to the back until the’ve learned to chew3 –  a sort of safety net from Mother Nature.  Nina Planck, author of Real Food for Mother and Baby (see sources), goes into this approach in greater detail in her book.

Don’t worry, though. If you were unable to exclusively breastfeed, failed to eat well during pregnancy or nursing or didn’t approach solids in the suggested manner, hope’s not lost. There’s plenty more ways to encourage your children to enjoy fruits and vegetables.

Getting Kids to Enjoy Vegetables: Grow Your Own

Self-efficacy is critically important for all children – you know, that feeling that you can create and attain goals. Gardening, even in small plots, or sprouting can encourage your children to eat their fruits and vegetables. By setting goals and helping children to meet those goals in their own right, children will be encouraged to relish the fruits of their labor. Imagine the excitement of planting a seed, nurturing it, watching it develop and then harvesting the results.
Growing your own can do wonders to support children’s acceptance of fruits and vegetables. Garden-based nutrition programs are sprouting up all across the nation as they prove, time and time again, improve fruit and vegetable intake among children4. Gardening increases children’s knowledge of and ability to identify fruits and vegetables, and child gardeners are more likely to choose to eat fruits and vegetables on their own5.

While garden-based nutrition programs are usually targeted to school-age children, there’s no reason that a toddler couldn’t participate in sprouting or growing a small garden. My son was watering our herbs the moment he learned to walk.

Read More about Kids and Food

Getting Kids to Enjoy Vegetables: Don’t Hide Them

If you’re looking to increase your child’s long-term intake of fruits and vegetables, don’t hide them. While popular books like Deceptively Delicious and The Sneaky Chef may nominally increase the amount of produce in your child’s diet, they’ll do nothing to foster a long-term appreciation for fruits and vegetables. Hiding a¼ cup of pureed cauliflower in your child’s mac and cheese won’t teach your child to appreciate cauliflower, instead it will foster an appreciation for mac and cheese. Slipping a few tablespoons of spinach that’s been cooked to death into a batch of brownies won’t make your toddler choose spinach when it’s offered on its own. Remember: we learn to love what we’re exposed to.

Instead, serve vegetables in their own right so your child has the opportunity to taste and appreciate the variety of flavors, textures and colors that produce offers. How will your child learn to appreciate the complex flavors of braised fennel with basil or pan-fried Brussels sprouts if you don’t serve them?

Getting Kids to Enjoy Vegetables: Make it Fun

Just as children who have a hand in the growing of their food tend to actively choose to eat fruits and vegetables, children who have a hand in preparing fruits and vegetables will be encouraged to eat them. As frustrating as carting a 4-year old to the grocery store may be, take your children along so that they might play an active role in choosing the fruits and vegetables that make it to your cart, to your kitchen and ultimately to their plates.

My husband and I manage our farmers market, and our son is always alongside us as we chalk out the street, greet our farmers and select our produce. Accustomed to the sights, sounds and scents of the market, he actively helps me to select the food that will make it to our table whether it’s the Sungold tomatoes that are bursting with flavor, bright green romanesco, purple topped turnips or those serpentine yard-long beans. He also knows that when fennel is available, we invariably purchase it so that we might eat finnochio before reading our 1928 copy of Pinnochio. Giving children a choice in the fruits and vegetables they eat is powerfully effective in promoting their intake of produce6.

In the kitchen, let your child give you a hand. It can be both fun and educational for them. Will you prepare coins of carrots, broccoli trees or even fit an entire rainbow of colors into your salad? How about stuffing a surprise of nuts and raisins inside those baked apples or preparing a variety of dips for carrot and jicama sticks?

Getting Kids to Enjoy Vegetables: Lead by Example

Take care to remember how deeply your choices as a parent affect those of your children. Profoundly impressionable, they’re looking to you to guide them into making the right choices for themselves. Parents can, and should, act as role models for their children – shaping their children’s preference for foods7. By actively choosing and savoring vegetables yourself, you mold the manner in which your child views fruits and vegetables.

The family and its beliefs and practices are the keys to developing healthy eating patterns in children as they grow to be adults; this is particularly important in early- to mid-childhood8. Eat well, and your children will learn to eat well. They’re looking to you to show them the way in this and in many other aspects of their lives.

Getting Kids to Enjoy Vegetables: Try, Try Again

If your kids scoffed at the spinach and butternut squash sautée you just served, don’t sweat it and try again. Repeated exposure to a variety of foods increases acceptance7. In essence, the more often you offer that spinach and butternut squash sautée, the more likely your children are to accept it, eat it and eventually relish it. In essence, kids like what they know and they eat what they like. The more your children get to know the wide variety of fruits and vegetables that are available, the more likely they are to eat and appreciate them.

Getting Kids to Enjoy Vegetables: Know When to Give It a Rest

The manner in which parents approach food and food choices with their children can greatly impact the food preferences of their children. Children are more likely to eat well in emotionally positive atmospheres7, and nagging, pushing and manipulating children into eating will negatively impact their acceptance of food.

Many children, chiefly between the ages of three and five, experience food aversions – particularly to new foods and while some researchers estimate that this aversion to new foods actually has a base in evolution, that’s little consolation to mothers worried about the nutritional status of their children. Yet, recognizing and benignly accepting your child’s pickiness may prove the best course of action. Most children, over time, will choose a well-balanced diet when wholesome foods are offered9.

Don’t exert pressure, control or force in mandating that your child eat fruits and vegetables or any other food, such parental manipulation may very well have the opposite effect of what you intend. Take it easy; were a child to experience negativity associated with any particular food or food group, it is likely that they will experience further aversion rather than encouragement and appreciation. There’s plenty more nutrient-dense foods beyond fruits and vegetables.

  1. Nicklaus. Development of Food Variety in Children. Appetite. 2009. February.
  2. Forestell et al. Early Determinants of Fruit and Vegetable Acceptance. Pediatrics. 2007. December.
  3. Rapley. Baby-led weaning, a developmental approach to the introduction of complementary foods. Maternal and Infant Nutrition and Nurture: Controversies and Challenges. Quay Books, London. 2006.
  4. Heim et al. A garden pilot project enhances fruit and vegetable consumption among children. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009. July.
  5. Parmer et al. School gardens: an experiential learning approach for a nutrition education program to increase fruit and vegetable knowledge, preference, and consumption among second-grade students. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2009. May – June.
  6. Zeinstra et al. Parental child-feeding strategies in relation to Dutch children’s fruit and vegetable intake. Public Health Nutrition. 2009. September.
  7. Benton. Role of Parents in the Determination of the Food Preferences of children and Development of Obesity. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders. 2004. July.
  8. Birch et al. Family environmental factors influencing the developing behavioral controls of food intake and childhood overweight. Pediatric Clinics of North America. 2001. August.
  9. Strauss. Clara M. Davis and the Wisdom of Letting Children Choose Their Own Diets. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 2006.

Photo Credit: Fun with Food at istockphoto.

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What people are saying

  1. says

    All very good advice that have worked well with our children as well.

    Something else to take into account might be texture. One of my girls near gags on raw carrots, but lightly steam them and she will eat a plate full. Same with the broccoli instead of boiling it in water we lightly steam it and it gets eaten twice as fast (and is better for you.)

  2. says

    Great Post! I, too, am lucky to have boys with broad tastes and an appreciation for good nutrition. Two things I think have helped immensely:
    First, the family garden. Choosing varieties (purple carrots and beans, for instance) growing and harvesting make eating them a celebration, not a chore.
    Second, a supportive school program. The Montessori school they attended made lunch part of the curriculum. It was delightful to have my then-5-year old lecture me about needing to have fresh vegetables, not canned for dinner.

  3. Laura says

    Hi Jenny- Love this post. I’ll definitely use the tips when I have children of my own one day! I was wondering… could you do a post about nourishing postpartum foods for the mother? As odd as it is, I can’t really find any healthy, traditional-style ones. My good friend is trying to get pregnant and I am already thinking of what to make her after the baby is born. =)

  4. says

    Hi Jenny, love your ideas! I have a question that isn’t completely on-topic, but sort of…

    Can you tell me more about something you mentioned: “lovely orange balls of salmon roe”? Ann Marie is trying to get me to eat roe, and my uncultured palate isn’t so sure. Maybe if I had a good recipe…

    Thanks!
    Kelly

  5. says

    Great article. You hit all of the points I do when I work with clients on feeding kids, especially the young and/or the picky.

    It’s so so important to NOT pressure your kids into eating things they dont like. Rather, like you said, lead by example, have kids with you every step of the way–planning, market, cooking. I watched as my older son, now 7, go from an excellent eater, to a picky eater and now to a decent eater. My little guy (5) is still picky….and stubborn. He has to take a “get off the table bite” or a “tell me what you hate about it bite” of everything. But at the end of the day my picky kid lives off of fruit, meat, kefir, water, rice, nut butters, homemade peach jam and honey, and lot’s more fruit.

    Does it bother me? yes Do I tell him? Sometimes. More often though I explain to him that someday he will want a girlfriend, and girls like boys who eat vegetables. We’ll see if that works!

  6. Jenny says

    Deanne -

    I think texture is really important.  That’s largely why I’m so anti-babyfood! I don’t feel that babyfood provides varied enough texture for little ones  – it only ever exposes them to mashes and purees!  Also, as you mention – offering the same food prepared differently may lead to acceptance over rejection.

    Take Care -

    Jenny

  7. Jenny says

    Sara -

    I LOVE it that the kids are now lecturing YOU about making smart choices.  I agree with you though that a supportive school program can realy be beneficial and formative in helping our children to make healthy choices in what they eat. 

    Take care -

    jenny

  8. Jenny says

    Laura -

    I’m currently working on a series that will cover wholesome, nourishing foods from pre-conception, through pregnancy and into post-partum.  I can’t WAIT to publish it, by that time we should have the forum rockin’ here so mamas and mamas-to-be can follow along and share their experiences.  In the mean time, I suggest you check out the Rebuild from Depression Blog: http://rebuild-from-depression.com/blog/.  While its focus is on preventing and recovering from post-partum depression, I strongly feel that her blog and her book are must-reads for any expectant or new mom.  Maybe you could forward it along to your friend?

    Take Care -

    Jenny

     

  9. Jenny says

    Kelly -

    I’ll let you in on  a secret – well – it’s a not-so-secret anymore!  I HATED salmon roe for the longest, longest time.  I’d literally have to stifle a gag when I put salmon roe sushi into my mouth. How embarassing at the sushi bar the moment I first tried it!  It was just fishy, and oily kind of like cod liver oil.  But, just as we do with kids, I made myself order it again and again and now I’m totally and completely hooked.  It’s SO good for us.  Packed with fat soluble vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.  We mostly eat ours as sushi either at home or out, but it can also be mixed in with sour cream / cream cheese and chives in a sort of dip.  I’ll have to post the recipe as soon as I get some more roe for the freezer.

    Take care -

    Jenny

  10. says

    Great post and suggestions. My munchkin (he’s just turned 11 yo, so I guess that makes him a big munch now) ate *everything* as baby (even spicy Indian food), then turned picky at age 2.5 yrs, which was initially quite frustrating. At about age 7 he started to shed most of his pickiness. That wasn’t long after I cleaned up the family diet, too, so there were no longer relatively empty calories from boxed cereals, bread, and crackers to fall back on, too.

    We also joined a CSA about then, and I think the exposure to produce variety and seasonality also helped to pique his interest.

    I actually don’t sweat it too much if my son doesn’t want to try all the vegetables that I prepare for our meals. He eats some things, but not others, yet his palate continues to expand as he matures.

    I’m not concerned with the amount of veggies he eats as long as he’s consuming enough natural fats and proteins, because that is where his calories for energy and growth are concentrated; those foods are so dense with micronutrients and nearly complete. I see the veggies as a bonus source of nutrients and flavor/texture variety (plus they make meals more interesting than a plain hunk o’ meat), not as the main source of nutrients.

    In other words, if he eats the entire bratwurst and only 2 pieces of red bell pepper, that’s fine with me. If he ate an entire red bell pepper and only two bites of bratwurst, I’d have more concern (plus I’d expect to find him back in the kitchen in an hour, looking for “something else”.

    • surabhi says

      My daughter who is four is a lot like that… I try some of the curried flavor veggies with her but she dsnt show any interest. I just give her a large serving of broccoli ( steamed and buttered a bit ) with her dinner and carrots for snack everyday… I guess she will love to eat whatever more she wants to try when she is older. I used to fret a lot about this but I encourage her to eat whatever veggie she likes..

  11. Melinda says

    Thanks for the great post. . my #4 son is the pickiest out of my brood, weaned at just shy of 2 years when he started sitting up at the breast and saying, “Warm milk, pteh — cold milk, mommy.”

    I love veggies and ate a variety of foods during my pregnancy — some I’ve talked to stated that’s why he’s so picky — go figure. .

    He would live on grilled cheese if I let him, loves apples, grapes and bananas, and tolerates the veggies we eat as a family.

    I make sure that he tries everything we eat as a family before he can say “no thank you” and that what we have is as nutritious as possible. I limit any kind of snacking to ensure he’ll eat at meal time (I did this with one of his older kinda-as-picky brothers.)

    He’s healthy, so I guess that’s what matters. .

  12. says

    and hey, if all else fails you can resort to bribery!
    kidding, sort of, though with my son, aged almost 8, I have done this. he was throwing fits daily about not liking this or that, screaming, wanting only starchy carbs, so we made a plan for him not to complain at meals for 2 weeks and then he will earn a small reward of his choosing. generally i dont think bribery is the best but every parent ive met has at times resorted to it.
    i have not met many children for whom eating fruit is problematic, fruit is sweet, kids have a natural prediliction to sweet foods. i tell stories about food, like how Gorillas are very big and strong and eat lots of greens and how greens and meat are full of iron which builds your blood, ect. my kids seem to enjoy this kind of info in regards to what they are eating and i like to imagine the nutritional information they have will spark their interest in the foods we serve.

  13. says

    Thanks for this post. It did give me a few new ideas. I have done much of what you suggest. I breastfeed and practice child-led weaning. I fix and offer a variety of vegetables in our home and always have. Neither of my girls ate much “babyfood”. My firstborn used to love all veggies and most fruits. She still likes a lot of them that other kids won’t eat, but since turning 4 I’ve noticed there are a few she is starting to refuse – like green beans. My second born still nurses, but is also pretty picky when it comes to veggies. She loves grains and meat. I keep offering though, we’ll see.

  14. Local Nourishment says

    Back in my grocery store shopping days, I always allowed each child a treat. Only catch was that it had to come from the produce department. Each week they would come back with some strange thing: starfruit, kiwi, a whole coconut, rambutan, prickly pears, something we didn’t eat on a regular basis. We still do that now that we are shopping nearly exclusively at our farmer’s market. The choices are less exotic, but the kids are getting experience talking to the farmers about the choices and varieties.

  15. Jenny says

    LN -

    My mom, when she took my sister and I grocery shopping, allowed us one treat as well.  I love your “catch.”  What a great way to get your kids excited about trying new things!  DS picked out a huge bag of mulitcolored sweet peppers at the market yesterday, and we’re going to ferment them this week. Hands-on food education at its best!

    Take Care -

    Jenny

     

  16. Jenny says

    Kelli  -

    I think that it’s normal at that age – as frustrating as it is.  LOTS of kids start refusing veggies at around that age.  Just keep offering them, and don’t offer too much processed stuff which I know you don’t, and she’ll come back to them eventually.  If worse comes to worst, you could make them super kid-friendly – cut flowers out of radishes and funny shapes out of carrots, you know?

    I need your address, btw, I have a jar of honey coming your direction!

    Take Care -

    Jenny

     

  17. Jenny says

    Emily -

    There’s a lot of things I said I’d never do as a parent.  Most of them, I haven’t.  But bribery has definitely found a (small) place in our home, much to my chagrin.  We also discuss how foods build the body and that definitely helps. 

     – Jenny

     

  18. Jenny says

    Melinda -

    That’s interesting that some folks are linking his pickiness to your eating a variety of foods during pregnancy.  The research I’ve looked at indicates the exact opposite is more likely.  You’re absolutely right, though.  What matters, in the end, is that he’s healthy and that you always give him the choice to eat the veggies – choice without pressure.

    Take Care -

    Jenny

     

  19. Jenny says

    Anna -

    I’m inclined to agree with you.  I don’t really sweat it my little guy chooses not to eat his vegetables at the dinner table.  I know that eventually he will, but what concerns me more is when he doesn’t eat energy- and nutrient-dense foods including meat. I know then that he’ll be hungry later – and, of course, he needs fat to properly absorb his nutrients.

    - Jenny

  20. says

    Jenny, what a great article. I’ve done many of things that you mention here, including growing my own veggies and having started them on veggies very early. However, my youngest son was an amazing eater until a month ago! Arghh… So completely frustrating. I continue to serve him as usual and am just hoping he phases out of this quickly!!

  21. Jenny says

    Diana -

    Thanks so much for the kind words!  It’s crazy how kids can turn against veggies in an instant, you know?  There’s still loads of nutrients in butter, cheese and meat which most kids seem to enjoy. 

    Take Care -

    Jenny

  22. says

    Thanks for your really informative post. My little one has just started refusing all my delicious home-made meals (which I eat instead),

    We’ve taken on board a few of your suggestions so fingers crossed!

  23. says

    I have a picky eater. When he was breastfed I ate super healthy. He was just not interested in eating and still generally isn’t. (I think that he is a super taster.) Which is the exact opposite of his older sister who will eat nearly anything. Now I just hide the vegetables in anything I can. I even put kale in his smoothies! I don’t care if he doesn’t touch a vegetable ever. There is a faint kale taste to his smoothie along with all the other crazy stuff I throw in there. I have never insisted that he eat anything. I put it on his plate and it’s his choice. I don’t say a word. Every once in a while he will eat something that we never thought he would! We don’t say anything then either.

  24. Suzanne says

    This is such a great post — especially the part about not hiding vegetables like they tell you to do in so many TV commercials. This is why kids don’t want to eat them. Parents also don’t know how to cook them. Mush vegetables is enough to turn a die-hard veggie lover like me off of them.

  25. Ashley says

    I hate to state the obvious but I think one of the biggest issues most kids have with veggies is the preparation. My husband hated most veggies until he tried mine because he grew up having every vegetable served to him steamed without fat and overcooked. It’s amazing what my kid will eat when I put some butter or olive oil on it. Also tryin new ways of cooking things. My husband and son hate steamed or sautéed asparagus but they go nuts for it when it’s grilled or broiled.

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