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We naturally want our children to have a healthy relationship with fruits and vegetables, knowing what we do about their health benefits and nutritional value.
Yet compared to convenience foods, junk food and sweet treats – which are so made to look so appealing to children – it can be challenging to fly the flag for the humble vegetable.
Some children are naturally more open to different tastes and textures but most kids experience phases of fussy eating at some stage. For anyone struggling to get their child to eat and enjoy healthy foods such as vegetables, these top tips should help:
There’s a school of thought which suggests that hiding vegetables in food won’t help children to fully understand what they’re eating. It’s dishonest and doesn’t give kids an opportunity to engage properly with healthy food or nutrition.
However, for parents who are at their wits’ end the opportunity to disguise a few challenging new vegetables gives them reassurance that their kids are eating something of goodness.
As a middle ground, try implementing a bit of both. Perhaps look to add veggies such as blended courgettes, peppers and onions into a pasta sauce to give it a nutrient boost, while continuing to offer carrot or cucumber sticks or cherry tomatoes at lunchtime.
Vegetables are easily concealed in juices, smoothies, pancake batter and sauces, as well as in more solid foods such as scrambled eggs, pancakes, muffins and bread. In fact, muffins containing finely-chopped spinach or vegetable bread made from shredded carrots, onion and courgette are simple to make, delicious and loaded with nutrients.
We talk a lot about healthy routines for kids, such a having a story before bedtime or brushing teeth twice a day.
Perceive eating vegetables in exactly the same way. Repeated exposure to vegetables will increase your child’s acceptance of them; making it a healthy habit that’s more likely to stick with them into adulthood.
Make an effort to offer fruit and vegetables with every meal. It could be fruit on cereal, carrot sticks with houmous for lunch or a side of sweetcorn or peas with dinner. Either way, you’ll break down the stigma associated with veggies and make them a normal part of mealtimes.
You’re more likely to have success if you start encouraging sweeter vegetables.
Mashed sweet potatoes, peppers, carrots, sweetcorn and butternut squash are naturally sweeter and kids tend to take to them over more bitter vegetables.
From here move onto different vegetables such as green beans, cauliflower and broccoli, many of which are packed with protein.
Some children prefer crunchy textures so seek out fruits and vegetables or salad-items that can be chopped into sensibly-sized sticks for dipping, such as cucumber, carrot and celery.
Often the key to eating veggies is in how it’s cooked or presented. If boiled potatoes aren’t popular, switch to mash. Or if they turn their nose up at raw veg, trying roasting it. You’re more likely to inspire kids to eat more vegetables if you adapt the way you cook them.
Had a battle over broccoli? Or a child rejects your lovingly prepared meal? As frustrating as it can be, don’t give up.
It’s all too easy to remove a dish from the meal repertoire because it caused conflict, or if your child refused it.
But in giving up on something they claim to dislike, you are limiting their exposure which can cause the aversion to strengthen. Kids should continue to encounter foods that challenge them because tastes, palates (and moods!) change.
Allow some time to pass before you offer that meal again. Or review the preparation and serving of it. Often cutting food into different shapes Are there ways you can make the dish look more appealing or enticing?
If your child refuses, try again in another few weeks. If it works, add a new vegetable every week or two.
Involving young kids in the planning, preparation and cooking of dinners can encourage them to eat more vegetables. Try giving them more control with some of these ideas:
Vegetables make nutritious snacks and are quick and easy to prepare.
Many parents find it convenient to offer pre-packaged snacks, but often something simple like a handful of carrot batons or mashed avocado on a rice cake is healthier and contains less added sugar and salt.
If kids eat vegetables as a snack, they will become more accepting of vegetables at mealtimes.
Forcing a child to eat a food they dislike will create negative associations, not only with the food you’re trying to encourage them to eat, but with food in general. This can cause greater problems in later life.
You want your child to have a positive association with food which can be formed if the entire family follows healthy eating habits. These can include:
By demonstrating healthy eating habits you’re more likely to be successful in converting even the fussiest veggie eater.
Bribery sends mixed messages. Promising your child a pudding if they eat their vegetables reinforces the idea that the vegetable component is something to be endured, not enjoyed, and that sweet treats are the ultimate reward.
Children are told to enjoy foods that are good for them and stay away from foods with little nutritional value. Yet being given foods that are bad for them in return for doing something good is confusing.
Offer a day out of their choice, new art supplies or their choice of film on movie night instead.
Applying too much pressure on yourself (or your child) will result in frustrations on all sides. If you relish the joy in food, chances are your kids will too.
Just be creative, don’t give up and keep persevering. Before you know it, vegetables will soon become a mainstay in your child’s diet.