Veggie rejection getting you down? We’ve got some ideas to take the stress out of feeding your kids - plus a delicious veggie-rich brownie recipe to make together.
There’s always one kid at the birthday party eating celery sticks and broccoli florets by the handful. His mother laughs merrily. “Oh yes, he just adores vegetables! He asked for extra olives on his pizza last night.” And all the other parents watch their darlings mainlining processed cheese while they throw cherry tomatoes at each other, and die a little inside.
Why are vegetables such a fraught area of parenting? Just think of all the tears and tantrums we could avoid, if only we didn’t have to worry about getting spinach into their bellies. But the struggle is real - especially at the moment, when some of their favorite foods might be harder to come by. Read on to discover five attitude adjustments that could help make family mealtimes fun again.
Getting kids to eat vegetables requires an early start! Studies show that babies have a ‘flavor window’ that opens up at between 4-6 months of age (when most babies begin weaning) and closes again at around 18 months. Parents who make the most of that window by offering their kids a wide variety of vegetables generally find their kids more willing to try new flavors. But don’t panic if your omnivorous baby turns into a veggie-phobic toddler. The majority of children settle on a limited range of familiar foods by the age of 18 months - and develop some fear of “new” ones. It’s actually a really useful evolutionary adaptation, to ensure that kids who are independently mobile don’t poison themselves by putting anything and everything into their mouths! And through patient exposure to a wide range of foods, they can gradually regain the adventurous tastes they displayed as babies.
Parents of picky eaters get very good at smuggling veggies. We hide bell peppers in pasta sauce, broccoli in pancakes, spinach in smoothies — it's just the way it is when it comes to veggies for kids. But we do it because it works: it bolsters our kids’ diet with essential nutrients, and bypasses their neophobia (fear of new foods). But it’s not the whole story. Research shows that once the “flavor window” has closed, children need to see, smell and touch a food many times before they recognize it as safe to eat. One study found the average was 15 exposures; in other words, you might have to throw away 14 portions of spinach before your child will swallow even a speck. So don’t give up! Serve a tiny portion of the new food - perhaps just three peas, or one slice of bell pepper - alongside their familiar foods, and keep up the regular exposure until your child tries it. Don’t be put off if they reject it or spit it out, either - it might take many more tries before they enjoy the taste.
The more you let your kids help with choosing, preparing and cooking veggies, the more confidence they’ll have to try new foods. And however counterintuitive it may feel, when it comes to how to get a toddler to eat vegetables, making a mess can help. Playing with food - squishing it, smushing it, discovering its texture and temperature - is an important preliminary to actually eating it. During the early stages of weaning, steel yourself for messy mealtimes (an old shower curtain on the floor under their chair is a good trick) and encourage your baby or toddler to explore veggies with touch and smell as well as taste. Interactive family meals work well for older children: serve veggies with a dipping sauce, or let them choose their own taco fillings or pizza toppings.
If family mealtimes have turned into a battleground, try dialing down the intensity by recognizing what you can and can’t control. Sometimes you have to cede ground on the battlefront that is vegetables for kids. You can control what you serve, and when you serve it; you can’t control what your child chooses to eat. You really can’t! So stop trying. Take charge of setting meal and snack times; choose healthy menus that work for the whole family; serve small portions - and leave the rest to them. Your child is not going to starve. Empowering them to get in touch with their appetite and have control over how much they eat is the best way to foster a great relationship with food, for life.
It’s not uncommon for a parent’s own food issues to be triggered by the stresses of trying to feed their kids. Worries about whether they’re eating too little or too much, and whether they’re getting to like the “right” foods or the “wrong” ones, are often projections of our own complicated relationships with food. Kids start out as naturally intuitive eaters. As long as they don’t have unfettered access to appetite-disrupting foods (like lots of added sugar), or too much distraction (like screens at mealtimes), they are generally quite good at eating just what they need, in the right amount for them. A lot of the time, our job as parents is to get out of their way and try not to pass on our food neuroses! But make no mistake: this stuff can be really tough. Don’t forget that kencko’s registered dietitians are here to help. If you want unbiased, non-judgmental advice and support around your own relationship with food, it’s free with your kencko membership.
As you ponder the age old conundrum of how to get toddlers to eat vegetables, try focusing your attention inward. Your child learns about food choices from watching you. Show off how much you enjoy veggies yourself, and provide the best source of encouragement for your child.
Family dinners provide the perfect opportunity to teach your kiddos that eating vegetables can be fun. Family-friendly meals like stir-fries and pastas make for a great canvas to sprinkle in added veggies. And a simple side salad is a quick and tasty option too. The more your kids see you (and/or their older siblings) chowing down on veggies, the more they'll likely want to do the same.
Vegetables, for toddlers, can be like climbing Mount Everest for an adult. Be sure to praise your child when they give a new veggie a shot, or even just eat an old favorite without much fuss. And be sure that praise is specific – "I love the way you tasted your broccoli!"
The goal of such encouragement is to get your kiddo to eat vegetables out of a developed but genuine enjoyment of them. The praise is just a step toward eliminating some of the potential friction. On the flip side, don't get negative if they're reluctant to try some new veggie. Going negative can lead to negative associations with the food itself.
When it comes to how to get kids to eat vegetables, mealtime isn't the only avenue. Veggies make great snacks! And the more veggie options – and the tastier they are – you present at snack time, the more likely a hungry kid will eagerly give them a try.
Keep a container of diced up vegetables in the fridge – cucumber, carrots or bell peppers work great with a dip like hummus. A bowl of cherry tomatoes is another sweet, and accessible snack.
Believe us. We totally get the temptation to turn veggie consumption into a quid pro quo arrangement. A bit of chocolate in exchange for a carrot. But even presenting eating in this light creates a false equivalence – that sweets are exclusively a reward and healthier options are exclusively a punishment.
If your kid puts up a fight the first time say, Brussels sprouts appear on their plate, don't sweat it. That's normal. Some children need to try a new food 10 times before they'll accept it, and another 10 times before they come around to liking it.
To help them reach that 10th, or 20th serving, try to mix in the veggie they're skeptical of with one they've come around to. And just keep encouraging them to try it. Most kids grow out of their anti-veggie stance with time!
This indulgent vegan treat is full of fiber and nutrients, and fun to make with your kids. It’s also forgiving of substitutions - you can happily swap agave or honey for maple syrup, and use whatever nut butter and flour is available - so go ahead and get creative with what you have in the pantry right now. Enjoy!
1 medium sweet potato, roasted, cooled and mashed (about 1 cup)
½ cup nut butter (we like cashew, or almond for a richer taste)
⅓ cup maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp canola oil
1 packet kencko golds + 1 tbsp good quality cocoa or cacao powder (substitute 3 tbsp cocoa/cacao if you don’t have kencko)
½ cup all-purpose flour (or substitute flour of your choice; oat flour works well)
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
Optional extras: ¼ cup choc chips, ½ cup chopped nuts
Heat the oven to 375F and line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, mix the sweet potato, nut butter, maple syrup, vanilla extract, and oil.
In a separate bowl, sift together flour, kencko golds, cocoa/cacao powder, baking powder, and salt.
Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and mix to combine.
Add chocolate chips and nuts, if using.
Spread the mixture into the pan and bake for 30-45 minutes. The brownies are done when the edges are dry and the center still slightly moist (but not wet).
(recipe adapted from @julie_court_nutrition with thanks)
Nutritionist Jennifer Anderson dispenses down-to-earth, workable advice and support for picky eaters and their stressed-out parents.
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