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We first posted this in 2012. The tips all still hold true. Since then, I learned even more from a therapist who works with kids with food aversion and sensory issues and will add that to the end.
Some children are not “just picky eaters” and have a level of feeding difficulties that need a different approach and specialized treatment, possibly “feeding therapy” or other interventions. If you have questions or concerns, talk to your pediatrician and ask for an evaluation to help determine where things stand developmentally and to help determine what would be the best options for your child’s individual needs.
One of our moms asked for tips on getting her little one to eat more vegetables and ideas for hiding the veggies in food. Many of our moms commented with stories and ideas. After some research and talking to several moms, I’ve come up with a list of tips that seem to be the most successful.
Some kids just naturally love vegetables. For the rest of the kiddo population though, vegetables can be an uphill battle. And then there are kids with food aversion which can make the battle feel impossible.
We all know vegetables are an important part of our children’s diet and that an early pattern of healthy eating habits leads to healthier adults. The new slogan is “Five a Day!” Everyone should be getting five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. My older kids like to argue that five servings of fruit a day meets that criteria. (Secretly, it sounds good to me too.)
So how do you get your toddler or preschooler or even older children to eat more or just some veggies? Know that it is almost never an overnight change. It’s a process, takes some time and work, and will have some back and forth.
Here are 9 clear, simple, small actions and approaches that can help your child eat more (or even some) vegetables. This a not a “step one then step two and so on” situation. It’s more of a buffet to try different combinations and “a little bit of this with a little bit of that”.
1. Just Keep Putting It Out There
Studies show that children need to be offered a food four to five times before they will try it. It also takes several tries before they like or love it. Always put a small serving of a vegetable or two on their plate so they have them available and the opportunity is always there to give it a shot. For the rest of the plate, serve foods that you know they will like to help keep mealtime a positive experience.
2. Make a “No, Thank You” Rule
When you put the small serving on their plate at a meal, make it a rule that you have to take one small bite before you can say “no, thank you.” I reserve this rule for when kids are pre-school age or older AND should only be considered if the child is dealing with “food selectivity” aka picky eater and not “food aversion”.
When your kids get older, this is a good rule to have for any food that has been prepared for them by someone else, even if they think they don’t like it or won’t like it. You can turn it into a lesson on manners. The thought being that it would be rude to turn down food that someone has made for you because you don’t think you will like it, so it is polite to at least take a tiny serving and try it before saying “no, thank you.” It can even be just a tiny teaspoon. The alternative would be to let whoever is preparing the meal know ahead of time if there are foods they can’t or won’t eat.
- This is also a good time to point out it is ALWAYS a good idea when having company over (kids’ friends or even your own) to check with the adults for any food allergies, aversions, strong dislikes. Allergies for their health. Aversions for their health also since they can have quite the physical and mental reaction when presented with foods they aren’t comfortable with even if they true WANT to at least try it and haven’t worked up to it. And dislikes, because let’s be honest. We want our guests or our children’s guest to feel comfortable and welcome. And we don’t really enjoy throwing away for. So it’s easier to get an idea ahead of time.
3. Try Different Textures and Ways of Preparing the Veggies
If you have tried steamed broccoli, try offering raw broccoli cut into small enough pieces. One mom wrote that her son prefers his roasted. Experiment with different seasonings or a tiny bit of butter or cheese wouldn’t hurt.
4. Dip and Play!
What kid doesn’t love to “play” with their food? Offer some peanut butter, humus, ranch, etc. for her to dip her veggies in. I’ve also been told peanut butter tofu is yummy. My big kids will eat more vegetables if there is dip to go with it. Another way to “play” is to arrange the veggies into a neat “face” or other picture on their plate.
Touching food and getting used to the feel of food was actually one of the first steps for approaching a new food when one of my kids was in feeding therapy. It helps remove some of the fear and unknown of the textures, temperature, and such.
5. Offer a Reward.
Stickers or dessert works. A study in London found that when children were offered a reward to eat their vegetables for a few weeks that months later even long after rewards were not an option, they still ate twice as much as the kids who were not given rewards. It can also help them focus on the positive of the reward rather than the fear or anxiety about the food. Different kids respond better to different approaches. You know your child.
6. Include Them in Every Step of the Process
Another way to help your child feel more comfortable with vegetables and more positive about them, in general, is to have your child be a part of picking and preparing meals. Have them choose which vegetables to buy from the store to try that week and then physically help you look and choose the exact items from the grocery store. Have them help you prep the food and then cook it. Again, the goal is to build confidence and to make it a positive experience.
- Let your child lead the process. Watch them for cues and comfort level as you move through the process. Being in control will help raise their confidence, help keep it a trusting process and positive experience.
6. Hide Them
The moms seem to be split on whether this is a good idea. Personally, I think hiding them is a fantastic option. They need the nutrients one way or the other. It’s not a matter of “tricking” them into eating vegetables. It’s about getting them the vitamins and minerals they need for a healthy diet.
Make it a combined effort. I am a fan of the “sneaky” recipes but obvious vegetables need to be offered in addition. So while you are fighting the good fight and going through what can be a long process of teaching them to love vegetables, they are still getting the veggies (and all the awesome nutritional value) hidden in the foods they ARE eating. And when they are old enough to help you cook, they will see that vegetables are going into the foods that they are eating.
“But isn’t that lying to my child?” No. It’s preparing them food without reading them a list of ingredients. Like you wouldn’t naturally read them the list on the back of a box of cookies or bottle of ketchup.
7. Have a Tasting Party
This works really well if other members of the family are fans of vegetables. Make it a fun, exciting, positive family event. Pull out the party platters. Whip up some new recipes or new dips. Turn on some music. Make some cute cards for each person to rate their favorite vegetables or to take a tally of the favorite dips or new recipes. Again, the overall feeling should be positive, happy, and confidence-building.
8. Start Early
Yeah, this one should probably be at the beginning of the list. From the very beginning of their solid food journey, begin offering vegetables as soon as possible. The trick is to KEEP including vegetables in their little baby and toddler meal plan. Too often, we get in a cycle of going to what’s easy and what they will quickly and happily eat. Carbs, they love carbs. I really can’t blame them. So crackers, cereal, etc start to take up more and more room on their menu.
9. The Process We Learned at Feeding Therapy
Again, the key is to let the child decide what they are comfortable with and gently encourage them to move through each step. We’re maintaining trust while building confidence and comfort.
The super-simple explanation is: look at the food, touch the food, smell the food, lick the food, taste the food, eat the food. It was VERY rare for my child to get through all the steps for one food in one visit. And that’s okay!
When presented with a new food, especially one that looks a little weird to them, smells strongly, has a funky texture, it overloads their brain and a defense system kicks in that says, “Nope! No no! Not doing that!” This process helps their brain slowly back down and move to, “Hmmm maybe this is safe to try.”
Notice the Theme Here?
Keep it positive. Take it slow. Let the kid lead the way. Maintain trust. Stay creative and encouraging.
Learning to love vegetables as a small child is important but it can be a marathon. Don’t try to force the issue and sprint. And what works for one child may not work for another. You are not alone. Countless numbers of moms are fighting the good fight with you! But we can do this! Baby steps are still steps.
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