5 ways to encourage kids to eat their vegetables

I meet so many parents who are concerned about their child’s lack of like for vegetables. First of all, rest assured that you are not alone. Secondly, don’t panic! Research suggests that it can take up to 15 exposures to a new food before a child will eat it. Meanwhile, there are lots of things you can do to help try and encourage your child that broccoli is not the devil.

1. Introduce fruits & vegetables early

It is well documented that the more familiar a child is with a certain food, the more likely they are to eat it. Weaning is prime time for a child to get used to different tastes and textures. Unfortunately, parents can sometimes become too worried about ‘how much’ their child is eating rather than appreciating that one of the main aims of weaning is to introduce the child to a wide range of tastes and textures. This can lead to parents just providing foods they know the child will eat, hence decreasing the number of exposures to foods they don’t. In short, always include ‘disliked’ vegetables on the plate, even if your child doesn’t eat them!
Parents can try ‘tricks’ like combining an already liked vegetable on a plate with a new one. Research shows that children are more likely to eat more of the new vegetable if it were presented with a familiar one as oppose to on its own. Vegetables also make great finger foods (not just for weaning!) and children are often more likely to be excepting of something when they can touch, taste, smell and play with it themselves first. 

2. Involve your children

Make your job easier in more than one way by getting your kids to help you prepare meals! When kids can see what is going into food, and when they’ve played a part in making it, it suddenly becomes fun and engaging and can lead to them wanting to try what they’ve made.
To what extent you involve them can vary depending on what you have time to do and how old they are. You could build a veggie patch together in the garden (or if you have little space, try growing herbs), take them to the market/shop to choose what vegetables they’d like for dinner and what fruit they’d like in the fruit bowl. Or even just let them put their food on their plate or sprinkle extra vegetables onto their pizza. 

3. Lead by example

There is a lot of research indicating that children pick up their eating habits from their parents. This stretches from types of foods eaten to the environment in which it becomes normal to eat. If you yourself are a fussy eater, then it’s likely that your child will pick up your habits. Try not to show your dislike for something. Always have vegetables on your plate. If you don’t eat them, your child doesn’t see why they have to either!
Try and have fruit and vegetable snacks within easy reach. If your child sees you munching on an apple, this becomes the norm rather than munching on a packet of crisps or biscuits. Soon they’ll be asking you for a piece!

4. Try presenting fruits & vegetables in a different way

So I mentioned how combining new veggies with those already liked can help. Well how about combining veggies with foods already liked in general? Adding fruits or vegetables to favourites like pizza, omelettes or breakfast cereals can help encourage your child to try them. Try to involve your child in this though, as changing something too much without them knowing could put them off the food they did like!
Slicing or shaping them in certain ways may help too. Making a face from them on a plate, aubergine cut with a heart cutter; you could even let them chose a cutter!
Try different cooking methods, consistencies and flavours. Give something raw that you’d normally cook, or cook something you’d normally give raw. Won’t eat a whole apple? Try slices, stewing it with a little cinnamon or grating it onto their breakfast porridge. Serve things like carrot, cucumber and pepper slices with hummus or another dip for a way to change things up a bit. Don’t like cauliflower? Try cauliflower cheese. (Cauliflower also blends easily and works as a great thickener for soups.) There is mixed evidence about ‘hiding’ vegetables in your child’s food, but methods such as blending/mashing to disguise vegetables normal appearance may be a good way of getting them used to the taste initially. There’s also lots of recipes available online that ‘hide’ vegetables by presenting them in a totally different form, things like; smoothies, frozen lollies made from fresh fruit and even cake recipes!
Serving fruits and vegetables in an atypical way with a new spice or flavour could lead you to a breakthrough!

5. Don’t fight over it

There are also a couple of things you should try to avoid doing to get your child to eat fruits and vegetables. Although it can get very frustrating, forcing your child to eat certain foods or finish their plate is not going to help the situation. Some research suggests that it can even put a child off that food for life!
Bargaining can also lead to a developed habit where your child won’t do anything unless they get a reward for it! Ideally, try to let your child decide when they’ve had enough, show a neutral reaction, remove the plate and just try again another day. This technique can also help them develop healthy habits in later life of stopping when they feel full.

More information & references:
NHS (UK) 5-a-day: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/5ADAY/Pages/Family.aspx
NHS (UK) How to involve your child in being healthy: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/childhealth6-15/Pages/Get-children-involved-inbeing-healthy.aspx
Borah-Giddens, J., & Falciglia, G. A. (1993). A meta-analysis of the relationship in food preferences between parents and children. Journal of Nutrition Education.
Cooke, L. (2007). The importance of exposure for healthy eating in childhood: a review. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.
Lerner, C., & Parlakian, R.  (2007).  Healthy from the start:  How feeding nurtures your young child’s body, heart, and mind.
Olsen, A. et al. (2012). Children’s liking and intake of vegetables: A school-based intervention study. Food Quality and Preference.
Olsen, A. et al. (2012). Serving styles of raw snack vegetables. What do children want? Appetite.
Wardle, J. et al. (2003). Modifying children’s food preferences: the effects of exposure and reward on acceptance of an unfamiliar vegetable. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Wardle, J. et al (2003). Increasing children’s acceptance of vegetables; a randomized trial of parent-led exposure. Appetite.

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