by Vesanto Melina and Kristen Yarker
While many toddlers and preschoolers aren’t fans of vegetables, thankfully, there are effective, helpful strategies less forceful than the age-old techniques of forcing kids to eat two bites of broccoli or allowing dessert only after they’ve finished their peas. The following techniques will help kids enjoy veggies now and appreciate these nutrition-packed foods when they grow up.
Be a veggie-eating role model: Actions speak louder than words. The most impactful technique for getting your child to eat vegetables is to eat them yourself. There are two parts to this advice: 1) Eat vegetables. 2) Eat with your child. Sitting down and eating together sends the subtle, but strong, message that your child is a member of a family that eats vegetables.
Repeat, repeat, repeat: We learn to like new foods through repeated exposure. It can feel like a waste of time, money and food to prepare something your child doesn’t eat. But don’t stop offering it. View it as exposure therapy. Studies show that kids need between 10-30 exposures before they eat a food. We’re also big believers in the word “yet.” If your child says, “Yuck. I’m not eating that,” respond along these lines: “It’s okay that you don’t like it yet. One day, you might like it.”
Prepare vegetables in different ways: Foods prepared in different ways can net very different results. For example, imagine the difference in taste and texture of raw carrot sticks, raw, grated carrots, steamed carrots or carrot-parsnip mash. Often, children will enjoy a particular food prepared in one manner, but not in another. If your child has rejected a food, don’t rule out serving that food in a different way.
Hiding vegetables: While on the topic of offering veggies with different preparation methods, you may be wondering if it’s okay to hide vegetables in other foods. The answer is a qualified “yes.” A study showed that kids who are served foods containing hidden vegetables do eat more servings of vegetables. But, if you choose to use this technique, there are two important aspects to using it correctly.
First: Be sure to also offer obvious veggies. You may know there is butternut squash hidden in the mac and cheese and beets in the chocolate cake, but if you don’t also serve some broccoli on the side of that mac and cheese, your child might learn that they only need to eat mac and cheese and cake. Even if your child doesn’t take a single bite of the broccoli, you are role modelling balanced meals.
Second: Don’t deny that a veggie is an ingredient. I’m not saying you need to share a list of ingredients, but if your child asks you, “what’s this?” don’t lie.
Pretty presentation: Toddlers and preschoolers are in a developmental stage where visual input is very important. While we don’t all have to be Michelin-star chefs or Instagram-worthy food stylists, putting a little effort, creativity and fun into how veggies look on the plate can go a long way towards kids being willing to try a food. If you’re drawing a blank tapping into your inner child, look to Instagram, Pinterest or Stargold for inspiration.
Vesanto Melina and Kristen Yarker (MSc) are registered dietitians and authors. Get Kristen’s picky eater solution book at www.kristenyarker.com. Vesanto is co-author (with Claudia Lemay) of Stargold the Food Fairy: the Plant-Based Edition, www.stargoldfoodfairy.com www.nutrispeak.com