I think it's safe to say that most parents want their kids to be great, healthy eaters. Unfortunately, healthful foods like veggies get a bad rap and parents don't expect, or know how to get their kids on board. I refused to believe that I had to feed my kids a strict diet of mac & cheese and chicken nuggets. My kids would love vegetables! My kids would eat everything!
I'm proud to report that they do, in fact, love vegetables and eat everything. But it certainly wasn't as easy as just throwing down some chow and watching them happily gobble it up. Getting them on board with healthy foods was a process starting from Day 1, and I can tell it'll be under construction for the rest of their lives.
So, what did I do to instill a love of veggies in my kids? What can you do? There are plenty of approaches you can take and none are as difficult or tricky as you might think.
Some physicians theorize that breastfed babies tend to be less picky than formula-fed babies because they are used to the varying taste of breast milk. As opposed to formula, which is bland and always tastes the same, breast milk's flavor is affected by what mom eats.
Make your baby's first solid a vegetable.
There is some speculation that introducing fruits as your baby's first solids can encourage them to develop a sweet tooth and will affect their willingness to accept vegetables, which are much less sweet and even bitter. While there is no hard-and-fast rule on the order in which you should introduce foods, I always thought the veggies-first strategy made a lot of sense. Both of my kids love veggies, so I'm inclined to think this strategy works.
Try and try again.
It can take baby or child multiple tries to accept a food. So even if they make a terrible face and fling their carrots at you today, it doesn't mean you won't get better results if you try again in a week or two. I tried avocado—a popular favorite of babies—9 times over 2 months with my daughter before she stopped spitting it out. My husband asked if I'd ever give up. I'm glad I didn't, because now avocados are one of her favorite snacks.
Try different preparations and spices.
There are many ways to prepare vegetables (or not. Plenty of vegetables are delicious raw!), and they all affect the taste of the finished product. Just because your kids don't like steamed broccoli doesn't mean they won't like broccoli in a stir-fry or sprinkled with cheese. Try roasting vegetables with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper for some extra flavor. Or, try mixing them into casseroles or other dishes. My daughter hates spinach alone, but she'll eat it no problem in a frittata.
Offer a variety.
There are a lot of vegetables out there. If your kids aren't fans of what you've put before them so far, try something new. And you never know, this might expand your diet as well. We're now a parsnip-loving family, all because I bought them to feed to the baby.
Don't overwhelm or offer substitutes.
Don't turn yourself into a short-order cook trying to find veggies (or any food) that your kids will consume. Offer 1 or 2 veggies at a meal—generally whatever you're making for yourself. If they don't like or want to eat them, fine. You can try again another time. But if your child refuses what you've served, don't give them a tried-and-true favorite instead. This can just reinforce that they really don't have to try anything new. In other words, "It's OK if you don't want to eat this broccoli, but you're not getting hot dogs instead."
Get your kids involved.
Studies have shown that kids are more inclined to eat foods they've helped prepare. So bring your child to the store to help pick out the produce for the week, and then have them help you prepare it. An easy way to have them participate is to ask them to put the cut veggies in the pot for steaming, or to help lay them out on a baking sheet for roasting.
I have yet to meet a child who ate all of their veggies because their parent yelled at them. Vegetables can be an acquired taste (especially strong-flavored or bitter veggies like Brussels sprouts and asparagus), meaning you grow to like them over time. Be encouraging, not demanding. Your child may legitimately not like something, and that's OK. Your goal is to identify what they like, not force them to eat what they don't.
Above all, be patient. It can take time to find the right combination of flavors to whet your child's appetite and help them get on board with vegetables.
Photo: Martin Cathrae
RealMom is married to RealDad, a super-buff and handsome red-headed fella, and they have two super-cute and reasonable children, RealGirl (3.5) and RealBoy (1). They were all born and bred in – you guessed it – New Jersey.