“Yuck!” “Ew!” “Mom, I am NOT eating that!”
These are probably things that you have heard at some point at the dinner table. Now I am going to take a guess that the “item of disgust” you served your child was a vegetable. I could be wrong; however, it is probably still safe to say that vegetables are not your child’s favorite food group. In fact, we know that many children struggle to eat enough vegetables every day.
Research shows that as of 2015, only 19.1% of US toddlers, 5.8% of preschoolers, 2.2% of preteen females and 9.5% of preteen males, and, lastly, only 0.3% of teen females and 0.5% of teen males are meeting their number of recommended servings of vegetable daily.1 As of 2017, the CDC reported that only 2% of teens are meeting their vegetable intake (only 1.2% of North Carolina teens!).2
So if your child is not eating all of their vegetables, you are definitely not alone! However, that does not mean there is no hope.
As parents, you know how important vegetables are for everyone, especially growing children. They are rich in several vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and C, folate, and potassium in addition to dietary fiber, which improves GI health, reduces constipation, and balances blood sugar.
However, it can be hard to get any child to eat enough vegetables, much less a picky eater. Below are five ways to help your kids eat more vegetables:
1. Consider Their Favorite Foods. When we are eating food, we are not only tasting, but we are using all five of our senses. Therefore, if your child is a picky eater, I encourage you to think about what vegetables your child currently likes (yes, we will count French fries for this exercise) and how they prefer those vegetables to be prepared – what color are they, what texture are they, how do they smell, what temperature are they? Next, try to see what other vegetables may have those same sensory properties as your child’s favorite vegetables.
For example, if your child likes peas, then perhaps they will like green beans or sugar snap peas or if your child likes mashed potatoes, then maybe they would like mashed cauliflower or mashed sweet potatoes.
2. Let Them Choose. Next time you go to the grocery store or farmer’s market, bring your child allow and let them choose which vegetable they want to try this week. I encourage you to make it a family experiment, where everyone tries a bite of a chosen vegetable together. I also recommend trying it three ways, since vegetables can taste different depending how we prepare it.
For example, if your child chose spinach, you could try it raw, try it sautéed, and try it chopped and added to your child’s favorite pasta. Hopefully this will help your child get excited about trying new foods and learn to like new vegetables allow the way.
3. Get Them Involved. Getting children involved in the kitchen is a great, low-pressure way to expose them to new vegetables. There are a lot of ways to get children of all ages involved in the kitchen and gear the tasks to their skillsets.
For example, toddlers can help stir ingredients, preschoolers can wash fruits & vegetables, elementary-schoolers can measure dry ingredients (including vegetables) for recipes, middle-schoolers can use a lettuce knife to chop softer vegetables, and high schoolers can be in-charge of preparing the vegetable dish for dinner.
4. Try Food Play. Children learn best from playing, which is why I believe that food play is such a powerful tool for helping picky eaters get comfortable enough with new foods to try them! When thinking of food play ideas for your child, think about what they like to do for fun.
If you have a builder, then try having a zucchini slice stacking competition. If you have an imaginer, then try making a food scene complete with broccoli trees for their favorite toys to live and interact with. If you have an artist, try painting with puréed food.
5. Think Creativity. If your child is not picky, but you struggle to figure out how to add more vegetables to your family’s diet then I encourage you to think outside of the box. Try challenging yourself by asking, “how can I add more vegetables to this meal?”
Perhaps that is adding chopped onions, bell peppers, carrots, or spinach to your favorite pasta sauce, trying zucchini noodles instead of spaghetti noodles, or making a vegetable-packed smoothie as morning drink or afterschool snack. Remember the goal of this is not to sneak in vegetables, but instead to help your whole family eat more vegetables – no sneaking or hiding needed.
Kerry Jones, MPH, RDN, LDN is a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s degree in Public Health who is passionate about helping growing families navigate life and achieve all of their milestones along the way. She works with women who are trying to conceive, pregnant, breastfeeding, or postpartum and children to help manage medical conditions, tackle picky eating, and establish a good family relationship with food. With an overload of nutrition information available, Kerry understands how difficult it can be to know which foods are best for you and your family.
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