By Connie Warner, MS, RD, pediatric dietitian, Providence Children's Development Institute at Providence Child Center
Ideally, half of every plate you put in front of your children should be filled with vegetables and fruits.
I realize that's not always easy. While your kids probably like fruit, it may be hard to imagine them digging happily into a plateful of vegetables.
Nevertheless, the evidence is clear: kids need their veggies. Vegetables supply critical nutrients to help them build healthy bodies and brains and to provide protection from cancer and other serious diseases. When eaten in place of higher-calorie foods and snacks, vegetables also help ward off weight problems in childhood and throughout life.
But how can we get kids to eat something they just don't like? My advice: keep trying. The vegetable world consists of more than carrots and green beans. There are hundreds of vegetables out there, and thousands of ways to prepare and serve them. The more you expose your kids to different vegetables and preparations, the more likely they will be to come across a few that they like. With ongoing exposure, they may begin to accept – and yes, even love – vegetables as a normal part of their diet.
Here are 12 tips to help lead your kids to vegetable love.
- Be a good role model. Kids learn from their parents' examples, so eat the way you want them to eat. Show them how it's done by loading up your plate with vegetables at every meal.
- Eat at the table. Your kids can't see the example you're setting if you're all eating in front of the television or in different rooms. Eat together, at the table, as a family.
- Make vegetables part of the routine, from day one. Getting infants to eat puréed vegetables isn't too hard. It's when they move on to solid food that things get more challenging. Don't let their pickiness wear down your resolve – offer toddlers vegetables to munch on at every meal. If they don't like the vegetable you're serving for lunch, don't force the issue or turn the meal into a battle. Just stick with the routine: offer a different vegetable at dinner, and another one at the next meal, and the next. When you make vegetables a part of their everyday routine, starting at a young age, kids get the message: we eat vegetables.
- Use ChooseMyPlate.gov as your guide. This government-sponsored website, based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, recommends filling half your plate with vegetables and fruit at every meal. That goes for your kids' plates, too. Check out ChooseMyPlate for all kinds of ideas on how to incorporate fresh produce into your family's daily meals.
- Make kids part of the planning. As kids start to get older and more determined in their resistance – usually around second or third grade – give them more control by letting them be part of the meal-planning process. Take them with you when you go grocery shopping or to the local farmer's market, and let them pick out one new vegetable to try each week. They're more likely to go along with something that is partly their idea.
- Share the joy of cooking. Once you get home with those new vegetables, spend some time with your kids exploring websites for different ways to prepare them. Let the kids read the recipes and vote for what sounds best. Then let them help with the preparation – depending on their age, they can toss vegetables with olive oil, measure spices, or help with stirring. If the first recipe turns out to be a flop, consider that a challenge: pick up the same vegetable a few weeks later and find a tastier way to prepare it. Didn't like it sautéed? Try roasting it, grilling it, or adding it to something the kids already like, such as soup, pizza or salad (see next item).
- Start supper with a salad bar. According to Cooking Light (Nov. 2012), having access to a salad bar raises kids' fruit and vegetable consumption by nearly 40 percent. Make salad a regular part of supper. Instead of tossing one big salad for everyone, set the ingredients out separately and let the kids build their own. Change up the choices and try new ingredients regularly, but go easy on high-calorie add-ons like nuts, bacon, cheese and croutons.
- Help them grow their own. Growing a garden – or even one cucumber in a pot – is a sure-fire way to help kids fall in love with vegetables. The process of choosing their own seeds, planting and watering them, and watching them sprout, grow and produce food is irresistible. If you don't have space for a garden, plant a few things in pots, or scout out a location to share a community garden.
- Dip 'em. Many kids who normally turn up their noses at vegetables will give them another try if they're served with dip. A small serving of hummus, salsa or low-fat ranch dip can give broccoli, celery and snap peas a whole new appeal. Veggies and dip make a great after-school snack or pre-dinner appetizer.
- Always be veggie ready. Kids on the go will grab whatever snack is the easiest. Make sure the most accessible snack in your house is vegetables. Keep your fridge stocked with a variety of veggies – cleaned, peeled, cut up, bagged and ready to go. And while you're at it, keep a full fruit bowl on the counter.
- Encourage kids to take at least one "no thank you" bite. Assure them that you won't force them to eat a plateful of something they dislike – you don't want to turn mealtime into an unpleasant experience. One "no thank you" bite however, is a reasonable rule. Kids should try one bite before saying "no thank you" to the rest, even if they've had it before and didn't like it. Tastes change. Your kids may surprise you – and themselves – by discovering one day that they've grown to like Brussels sprouts after all.
- Explain yourself. "Because I said so" isn't the strongest argument for eating vegetables. "Because they will help you grow up strong, develop a smart brain, do well in school and have the energy to do all the things you want to do," is much more persuasive. Your kids still may groan and roll their eyes at you, but over time, the message will sink in. They may not love vegetables right away, but they'll grow up understanding why vegetables are important, and they'll learn to tolerate, accept and even like some of them. And that's a great step in the right direction.