Every once in a while, you run into a toddler who enthusiastically chows down on a huge dinner salad or side of ratatouille. Most parents, though, struggle to get their kids to eat more vegetables. If you’re raising a picky eater, join the club. That can be frustrating for you as a parent, but it’s not a sign that you’re doing something wrong.
Young kids, especially, are supposed to be picky. They are hard-wired to reject new foods and foods that taste bitter or otherwise “icky” to them, a phenomenon known as “neophobia.” Experts believe this is an innate survival mechanism designed to keep dangerous plants out of their mouths. Your child doesn’t know that Brussels sprouts and mustard greens aren’t trying to kill them. Although kids start to outgrow neophobia as they hit school age, most parents of older kids and teens will tell you that it’s still not easy to get them to enjoy vegetables.
So what are parents to do?
On the one hand, we want our kids to eat diverse, colorful meals that deliver the full spectrum of vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals that promote strong, healthy bodies. On the other hand, the constant rejection of our hard work in the kitchen is exhausting and demoralizing. Mostly, we don’t want mealtimes to be miserable.
It’s not easy to expand your kids’ palettes, and it might take longer than you’d like, but it can be done. It boils down to two things: getting the kids’ buy-in and making veggies as appealing as possible. Here are some creative ideas to help kids develop a taste for vegetables.
Tips for Getting Kids (And Picky Eaters of All Ages) To Enjoy Vegetables
Give them choices.
Your kids will never truly enjoy vegetables if you force the issue. Kids respond better when they feel like they have some control and agency in any situation. Give them some choice in the matter… but constrain them.
Instead of, “What do you want for dinner?” ask, “Should we have broccoli or asparagus with our dinner tonight?”
Instead of, “You need to eat your vegetables before you can leave the table,” try, “Would you rather have three bites of cauliflower or two bites of cauliflower and one baby carrot?”
Serve lots of options.
Everyone loves buffet-style food. Try:
- Taco or nacho bar, burrito bowls (tomatoes, salsa, onions, green onions, various peppers, cilantro, avocado—which yes, is technically a fruit)
- Baked potato or sweet potato bar (chopped broccoli or cauliflower, onions, tomatoes, chives)
- Poke bowls (shredded carrots and cabbage, diced cucumber, diced or shredded radish, edamame, seaweed, avocado)
- Salad bar (anything!)
This also gives kids choice, and it’s more fun than a pile of vegetables plopped on their plates. As they assemble their meals, encourage them to take one bite of something new.
Sure, it’s a little more work up front to chop up a bunch of vegetables, but just think of it as meal prep. You can use leftovers to make omelets or salads the next day.
Explain why it’s important.
We adults don’t always love all the “healthy foods” we choose to eat. (Does anyone like zucchini as much as dessert?) We eat them because we know they are good for us, and we appreciate how they make us feel. Even young kids can understand that different foods provide different building blocks that help our bodies grow strong. Just like their Lego sets have blocks of different shapes, sizes, and colors, vegetables of different colors serve slightly different functions.
Keep it simple and age-appropriate, but give kids credit for being smart (if not always rational or cooperative!)
Involve them in the preparation.
Again, this taps into their desire for control. Even young kids can help in the kitchen with washing, chopping, seasoning, stirring, plating, etc. Let them pick out a vegetable at the grocery store or farmer’s market—something familiar or novel. Get slightly older kids involved in finding easy vegetable recipes they might enjoy. Encourage them to pack their own lunchboxes (with options you approve of, including at least one vegetable).
Make eating vegetables fun.
Don’t take mealtime too seriously. Let your kids play with their food. Cut veggies into fun shapes and let them arrange them on their plate to make food art.
Ask them questions about the food that encourage them to engage with it. Which food on their plate is the crunchiest, softest, shiniest, saltiest? Pretend you’re on a cooking show and come up with fun or creative ways to describe the dinner like you’re contestants or judges.
Make a color chart and have kids put stickers in different columns to show the variety of vegetables they have tried.
Experiment with different textures.
Kids’ aversion to vegetables often has as much to do with the texture as it does with the taste. Your kids might prefer certain foods raw, roasted, steamed, or air-fried. Maybe you can’t get them to eat a side of broccoli, but they’ll eat a bowl of blended broccoli soup. Blended soups can also serve as dipping sauces for sandwiches, wraps, crackers, or other vegetables they like more.
Make them taste better.
But let’s be honest: it’s usually the taste of vegetables that’s turning kids—and lots of adults—off. We all want to eat foods that taste good, and trying to force kids to like foods that simply don’t taste good to them will always be a losing proposition. That said, there are ways to enhance (and, to some degree, cover up) the flavor.
Generally speaking, roasted vegetables taste better than steamed or boiled. Salt and other seasonings make a big difference, as does adding some fat. Other tried-and-true ideas are
Serve small portions.
Kids don’t need to eat huge servings of vegetables. One to one-and-a-half cups over the course of the whole day is enough for young kids, two to three cups for older kids and teens. You’ll probably have better luck serving small portions at each meal and snack. Toddlers can get what they need with just a few bites each time spread out across the day.
Bento boxes can be a great way to serve smaller portions of a variety of foods in a way that appeals to kiddos.
When All Else Fails, Hide Them
This strategy is somewhat controversial. Yes, the ultimate goal is to help our kids make self-supportive food choices. The “hide them” strategy shouldn’t supersede your efforts to get your kids on board with vegetables, but sometimes you need to bite the bullet and get those nutrients in. In other words, keep trying, even if you’re sneaking in vegetables by
- Blending them into smoothies
- Baking them into muffins, pancakes, or brownies
- Sneaking them into pasta sauce
- Mixing them into ground meat
Lead By Example
If you want your kids to willingly “eat the rainbow,” you must model that behavior. Watch how you talk about vegetables, too. If your attitude is, “Yeah, cauliflower is gross, but it’s good for you, so eat up,” chances are your kid will never embrace it.
Don’t Give Up
Your kids might not ever love vegetables despite your best efforts. Some people just like certain foods more than others. You aren’t a bad parent, and your kid isn’t a bad kid, if they don’t like vegetables. That doesn’t mean you should stop offering them, though. Research shows that it typically takes 6 to 15 exposures before a kid will start to accept a new food, and it could be many more.
They’ll probably never like vegetables as much as sweeter foods like fruit or ice cream. This is another innate preference, and you can’t fight nature. That’s why getting their buy-in is important. Hopefully, they’ll choose to eat vegetables even if they aren’t their favorite because they understand why it matters.
If they are eating a variety of foods—even if it’s not as wide a variety as you’d like—that includes some protein sources, a few different vegetables, some fruits, and maybe yogurt and other dairy products, that’s a good start. If you’re concerned about their nutritional status, talk to their pediatrician about adding a multivitamin. Otherwise, give it time.
The big thing to remember is that you don’t want to become locked in a power struggle with your kids over food. When mealtime becomes a battleground, everyone loses. I know it’s hard when it feels like your kids are being stubborn and uncooperative, but their aversions have a real biological basis (and also, kids push buttons like it’s their job). Chances are, your kid will grow into a good eater with a more diverse palette as they get older if you keep providing opportunities and encouragement without forcing it. Hang in there!