Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ideas for Raising Veggie-Loving Kids

Are you one of the many parents out there who worries that their little one is a picky eater?

It seems to be a common refrain. My child just doesn't like vegetables. Or how about this? My son will only eat peas or carrots. Or maybe, The only way my daughter eats veggies is when I sneak them into her meals!

On the flip side, do you ever wonder about those parents who never seem to have that problem? Do you envy parents whose children can be seen digging into unusual cuisines with gusto? Debate how they convince their children to eat asparagus and kale and mushrooms? Maybe it's all luck; they just got a kid who is a "good eater," while you got stuck with one who thinks vegetables and unfamiliar foods are poison.

For the parents who wish there was some way they could gently encourage their children to eat better, take heart! There are steps you can take. None of these will guarantee that your children will turn from a vegetable-hater to a vegetable-lover overnight, but with enough time, they may help to turn the tide.

Eat them yourself.

In America, only about a quarter of adults eat vegetables three or more times per day, and it's recommended that we eat at least five to seven servings per day! Is it any wonder that our children aren't eating enough veggies, either? If you want them to eat more veggies, it is important that you lead by example. Try to have veggies with every meal, if possible (yes, including breakfast!). Make sure your children see you eating them and, perhaps more importantly, enjoying them; if you act like eating veggies is a necessary evil, your little ones are going to pick up on that. So do what it takes to make eating vegetables a positive, normal part of the day.

Start 'em young!

Sometimes, I can't help but wonder if the aversion that so many kids feel towards vegetables has roots in their early experiences with food. Think about it. What is the typical first experience with vegetables? Cooked and pureed carrots or peas or some other "early" veggie. Bland and boring, especially if it comes from a jar (at least when you make your own you can ensure that the produce is  at the peak of freshness and ripeness). The texture is nothing like that of the carrots they will eventually be expected to eat when they get older. The flavor is probably pretty different too; how often do you eat plain steamed or boiled carrots, no salt, no butter, no seasonings of any kind? (Well, I actually do sometimes, but that's besides the point; most people do not.)

Perhaps instead of feeding your little one baby food from a jar, or even making your own purees at home, you might consider taking a different approach. Have you ever heard of baby-led weaning? The most basic premise is that you let your little ones feed themselves from the get-go. This means suitably-sized chunks of foods, real foods, the foods you are eating yourself. No purees. No grains or "baby cereals," which babies under a year old generally can't digest properly anyway. (Did you know there's no scientific reason why purees should be first foods? The only real benefit of purees is that it allows you to easily feed your baby "real" foods... perhaps before your baby is physically ready for those foods.) Not only is baby-led weaning an easier, more natural approach to feeding your baby, but it has real benefits for baby too: baby learns to pay attention to his own hunger cues (if he's hungry, he'll keep eating; if he's not, he's not going to have you putting spoonfuls of mush into his mouth anyway), baby learns how to gum and eventually chew different sizes and textures, and baby gets a lot of practice with those fine motor skills.

Remember that baby-led weaning and spoon feeding are mutually exclusive; you can offer your little one chunks of avocado and pumpkin at one meal and then spoonfuls of applesauce at the next. (Maybe consider adding a dash of cinnamon to that applesauce! And don't feel like you need to buy "baby" applesauce, either; any standard brand of no-sugar-added applesauce is perfectly suitable for a baby who is old enough for solids.) The important thing is to expose baby early and often to a wide variety of produce from a young age. And don't shy away from just sharing part of your own dinner when appropriate!

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again... and again... and again...

Once children hit a certain age, it's pretty common for them to be resistant to trying new foods. There are reasons for this; from an evolutionary standpoint, being a "picky" eater may have once been beneficial to toddlers, keeping them from trying new (and potentially harmful) foods on their own, without a parent's input. Biologically, it's worth noting that younger babies taste bitter and sour flavors more strongly than adults though; they have a natural aversion to bitter or sour foods.

That being said, it's important to keep offering children new foods, even foods that have been soundly rejected in the past. You may need to offer a child a new food 10-15 times before they will eat it. Keep offering, and hopefully they will voluntarily try it (and enjoy it!) eventually.

Put them in creative places... 

There are so many ways to serve vegetables to your children than just as a side dish. And it can be really easy to add vegetables in foods you're eating all the time anyway in a way that doesn't mar the taste or texture of the final meal.

One example? Pasta sauce, specifically marinara sauce. If you make your own pasta sauce, it is really easy to add all kinds of vegetables to it and then blend the whole thing into a smooth sauce; try adding carrots or parsnips in with the onions and garlic, or a few chunks of cooked butternut squash (for a sweeter flavor overall). Shredded zucchini can be added either before or after blending. With enough time spent simmering, peeled eggplant practically melts into tomato sauce. Finely chopped spinach might leave behind little flecks of green but no awkward taste; other greens might leave a stronger flavor, but one that enhances the final sauce.

Do you see where you can take this? Pureed vegetables of all kinds can easily be baked into breads and muffins. Smoothies are a great place to add extra vegetables; add cooked winter squash, chunks of cooked beets, spinach, cucumber, or other vegetables to a big fruit smoothie and note that the overall taste doesn't really change. Many people add vegetables to meatloaf or meatballs, or even chicken nuggets or hamburgers (although as a vegetarian, I can't really comment on the effectiveness of that!). Add shredded carrots to the pan when making old fashioned or steel cut oats; if your children shy away from it at first, try simply re-branding it as "carrot cake oatmeal," and most kids will happily eat their entire bowl. (Do the same thing with waffles or pancakes, too!)

The point here is that there are a wide variety of different ways to fit vegetables into your child's diet (not to mention your own!). Why limit yourself to vegetables served on their own?

...But don't try to hide them.

I know a lot of parents who are absolutely dependent on this method. If the kids won't eat veggies, well, just sneak them into the foods they're already eating! Hide them in sweet things or blend them into the meatloaf! They'll never know the difference!

I may be over-analyzing here, but have you ever thought about what message you're sending your kids? Sure, they may not know right now that you've hidden spinach in their smoothie or zucchini in their muffins, but someday they will. And when they do realize it, on some unconscious level they may internalize this message: Vegetables aren't worth eating on their own. If they haven't been eating vegetables and enjoying them for what they are when they're young, they're probably not going to just suddenly doing so when they get older. Hiding vegetables does not teach kids to like vegetables, and it does not teach kids to eat healthy. On some unconscious level, they may believe vegetables don't taste good. Vegetables have a weird texture. Vegetables are not something to snack on, something to voluntarily put on your pizza, or one of the best side dishes at big holiday meals.

Wait a second, you say! What was that you were just saying about sticking veggies in pasta sauce and smoothies? Isn't that hiding them? Remember that while there is nothing wrong with using vegetables creatively, it benefits everyone when your family knows exactly what is in the foods you serve to them. Go ahead and toss a big handful of spinach into the smoothie before blending it; just make sure that you don't keep it a secret from your child. Someday, they may grow to think that all smoothies benefit from a healthy handful of greens!

On another note, am I the only one who feels like hiding veggies in regular foods is pretty close to lying to them? Lying by omission perhaps, but however you want to define it, it is being dishonest. And most parents want their kids to learn that any kind of dishonesty is not okay, no matter how well-meaning.

Involve them in cooking.

When a child helps to prepare a food, they're more likely to want to eat the finished meal. Get them invested in mealtime by getting them into the kitchen! For really young babies try starting with just bringing them into the kitchen while you're cooking - a safe distance away from anything dangerous, of course - and talking to them about the process. After they get good at gripping things, toddlers can start to get involved with the actual process of cooking. Bake things together; you can measure out ingredients and baby can dump them into the bowl, and then help with stirring. Let your child help you dump veggies in the pan (before you actually turn on the heat). By the age of 4 or 5, you can even let them help you with chopping up certain veggies; look for special knives for kids that don't easily cut skin. The older a child gets, the more involved they can be with cooking.

Another idea? Get your child's input when it comes to what you're making for dinner. Offer them a few choices, but let them actually select the meal. Or try exploring cookbooks together; let them look at the pictures and tell them about what the dish might taste like. If you do meal planning, let them help you select some of the foods you're making every week (within reason, of course!).

Look outside the grocery store.

There are so many places where you can get fresh produce other than at your neighborhood grocery store. And often, those other places will have produce that is fresher and tastes better, not to mention a wider variety. One great option is a farmers' market, where you will find a great variety of fresh fruits, veggies, and herbs, as well as other things like freshly baked breads, cheeses, eggs, and more. Did I mention that many vendors at farmers' markets offer free samples? Sometimes the mere fact that a taste of the food is free, and not being offered by mom, is enough to convince a child to try something.

Or maybe you could consider joining a CSA (community-supported agriculture) project. Most CSAs offer a box of fresh produce weekly or bi-weekly, delivered either to your door or to a convenient drop location. CSAs also offer a wide variety of produce, freshly-harvested, including more "normal" foods (expect a ton of zucchini in the summer months) as well as less common types (I've been a member of many CSAs over the years, and there are a lot of fruits and veggies I've tried for the first time because they were in my box that week). Kids love unpacking the box every week and seeing what's inside. Parents are determined to use everything and not let anything go to waste, while children are intrigued by exotic produce and (hopefully) want to sample it all.

Farm stands also have a lot to offer; sure, you have to drive to the farm, but you also know that everything was picked fresh. Or look for local u-pick farms, where you can harvest berries or apples or other produce; you have to pick it yourself, but the produce costs less than anything you can buy in a store and tastes much better. Plus, there's something about the process that just draws children in. Make a family event of it!

Let them pick them out something they want to try.

Have you ever tried letting your child pick out a veggie to go with dinner? Sometimes having a say in what's going to be on the table can make a big difference in whether or not a child is going to want to eat it. So consider involving your little ones in the meal planning; let them choose what veggies are going to be served with dinner. Or just go to the store and explore the produce aisles together. Maybe you can give some of the more unusual types of produce a try. Or maybe you can try the unusual varieties of "normal" produce. Even our local Albertson's carries purple and orange cauliflower; they taste the same as regular cauliflower, but the bright colors might be what it takes to encourage kids to give them a try.

Or start a garden and grow them yourself!

This is one area where I don't have much personal experience; I've always had a bit of a brown thumb, and we've lived in apartments since my son was born anyway. But recently, I picked up a "make your own pizza garden" kit from the store, and my son was absolutely enthralled. It's really just a tiny herb garden, featuring basil, oregano, and parsley, but he loved helping me dump soil in the pot, poking holes for the seeds, gently covering them up. He looks forward to watering it every day or two. He always wants to sit outside and watch things grow. And eventually, when those basil sprouts turn into bigger plants, we'll harvest some together and make a fine batch of pesto, and I have a feeling my son will just gobble it up.

Getting children involved in gardening has so many benefits. It gets them outside and sets them up for a great hobby. It gives them a great excuse to get dirty. It helps them to work on their patience, since plants take a long time to grow. And by helping to create the food, kids have a vested interest in eating the results. Don't be surprised if your budding gardener is much more likely to eat those veggies he helped nurture.

This post has been shared at the Healthy, Happy, Green, & Natural Party Blog Hop on 4/21/2015.


  1. Hi Holly,
    I remember not liking many of the vegetables my mother cooked when I was a child. Your post is full of great suggestions. What a great way to give children a healthy-eating foundation for life! Thank you for sharing these wonderful ideas for raising veggie-loving kids with us at the Healthy, Happy, Green and Natural Party Blog Hop! I’m pinning and sharing!

    1. Glad to hear that some of my ideas resonated with you, Deborah. I always love being able to share relevant posts with the blog hop!

  2. I can't even say how many adults are picky beyond belief and have loudly pointed out to me how much they dislike a certain vegetable ... mentioning also that they've never tried it and never will! !

    I used to lead school tours a few times a week on the farm and the kids would scream, cry gross, and be alarmed at EVERYTHING! The worst part? Their teachers weren't much different!!!!!

    Definitely having the foods available, leant by example and not forcing it on them are great methods. I don't recall ever even thinking an option existed when I was a kid!

    1. That kind of learned behavior, by the kids on the farm tours, must have made you a little crazy! I once knew someone who would proudly proclaim that she didn't "like" vegetables, and that blanket statement just made me so sad. How can you not like vegetables? Where does your body get nutrients from if you're only eating meats and grains? How on earth are you going to raise healthy children if they don't ever see you eating veggies?

      I know many children, perhaps most, go through picky phases... even Bug sometimes is resistant to trying new foods (although once I can convince him to try a bite, he usually finds that he likes it after all!). But there are so many ways to gently counter that; it's never a good idea to let them subsist entirely on a diet of pb&j and/or boxed mac and cheese.