All parents strive to feed their children healthy and satisfying meals. Vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals and are also a great source of fiber and potassium, which makes them a great snack or base for any meal. MyPlate recommends kids get between one and one and a half cups of vegetables per day; however, vegetables are not always a child’s first choice. Here are a few tips for increasing vegetable acceptance at home:
Serve vegetables as snacks
One study found significant differences in child fruit and vegetable intake in households where they were served as snacks in addition to at meal times. Repeated exposure to vegetables is key as is making them look appetizing. Use color to your advantage when serving bright red bell peppers or carrot sticks as a fast snack or try a refreshing green smoothie with a handful of spinach or kale and pineapple, banana, and water.
During early childhood, parents are important role models for their children, especially when it comes to eating behaviors and food selection. Several studies show parents who practice healthy eating behaviors and prepare readily available healthy foods increase their child’s consumption of those foods, especially vegetables. When your kids see you eating cucumbers or cherry tomatoes as a snack and filling up your plate with veggies at dinner, they may be more willing to do the same.
Include them in meal prep
Studies show that children’s involvement in meal preparation was associated with a higher consumption of vegetables and has a positive impact on healthy food intake overall. Depending on your child’s age and skill set, determine how they can help. Younger children can help rinse greens or scrub root vegetables while older children may be able to use the peeler. Is your child comfortable with scissors? Buy a pair of “food only” scissors to keep in the kitchen and let your son or daughter cut greens or herbs if they aren’t quite ready to use a knife (or if you aren’t).
Try a non-food rewards
Research has shown that in addition to repeated exposure, rewarding your child with a non-food item (such as a sticker) and verbal praise after trying a new vegetable increases how much a child will eat and how much they will like a previously disliked vegetable. When introducing a new vegetable, try offering a piece and telling them they can choose a sticker if they try it, and then follow up by praising them if they do indeed try a piece.
Parents might be surprised to learn that promising a food treat in exchange for eating a new vegetable (such as serving ice cream as a reward for trying broccoli) is actually the LEAST effective technique to teach children to enjoy and consume more vegetables. Stick with small toys, extra play time, or other non-food rewards to successfully increase veggie acceptance over the short- and long-term.
Let them play with their food
Children are more sensitive than adults to stimuli like smell, taste, and touch, so a texture that seems appealing to us might be rejected right away by a picky eater. If they don’t like how a vegetable feels in their mouth, they just won’t like eating the vegetable! For parents working with picky eaters, encouraging them to use their hands to feel and play with a new food before asking them to try it for the first time may help them become more accepting of new foods. Kids can cut golden beets, cucumbers, and radishes into any shape using a cookie cutter or help toss veggies in olive oil and salt and pepper before roasting in the oven.
Kristin Unger, MS in Nutrition and Dietetics Candidate
Kristin Noe, MS in Nutrition and Dietetics Candidate