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, 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.
Grow Your Own Vegetables
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.
Don't Hide Vegetables
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 a quarter-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?
Make Vegetables 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
3) Heim et al. A garden pilot project enhances fruit and vegetable consumption among children. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009. July.
4) 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.
5) Zeinstra et al. Parental child-feeding strategies in relation to Dutch children's fruit and vegetable intake. Public Health Nutrition. 2009. September.
6) 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.
7) Birch et al. Family environmental factors influencing the developing behavioral controls of food intake and childhood overweight. Pediatric Clinics of North America. 2001. August.
8) Strauss. Clara M. Davis and the Wisdom of Letting Children Choose Their Own Diets. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 2006.