They’re touted as the end-all-be-all of healthy eating. Here’s what to do if your kid won’t touch them.
When I ask parents for their biggest frustrations around feeding their kids, I often hear this: “They won’t eat any vegetables!”
I get it. Vegetables are treated like the holy grail of healthy eating. So if your kid hates vegetables, you may feel like you’ve failed–or that your kids will never, ever be “good eaters” if they’re not happily scarfing down kale (or even permitting anything green on their plates).
Why does my kid hate vegetables so much?
There are a lot of reasons your child might be on a perpetual veggie strike. To name a few:
- Some kids (and adults) have a heightened sensitivity for bitter flavors. And some veggies can be bitter (I’m looking at you, kale and broccoli).
- Some kids (and adults) have texture aversions that make mushy or slippery veggies a no-go.
- Vegetables aren’t as easy to eat or familiar as foods like bread, noodles, and crackers, which have predictable tastes and textures.
- Saying “no” can be fun for kids, particularly independent-minded toddlers (and especially if it gets a rise out of mom or dad!).
It’s not the end of the world. Really.
Yes, vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, hydrating fluids, and special plant compounds that help fight disease.
There’s also evidence that a fruit-and-veggie-heavy diet may be linked to lower risk of health problems like heart disease and possibly a healthier weight too.
That’s all well and good, but if your kid would rather withstand ten full-face sunscreen applications than eat a single pea, guess what?
- It doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.
- It doesn’t mean your child is unhealthy or nutrient-deficient.
- It doesn’t mean your child will never, ever eat and enjoy vegetables.
Get comfortable. We’re playing the long game.
I know you’re sick of hearing dietitians like me with our cheerful refrain of “keep trying!”
Annoying. But true. Research shows that kids are more likely to eat and enjoy what is familiar–the foods they’re exposed to over and over again. (And remember that exposure isn’t just tasting or eating. It’s also seeing, touching, smelling, or simply having a food on the table or their plate.)
Case in point: One day out of the blue, my younger son reached across the table at a restaurant, plucked a cucumber from my salad, and declared, “I want to try cucumbers.”
Sure, it wasn’t a shining moment for table manners, but I was thrilled. Because it was his choice. It’s what sociologist Dina Rose, author of It’s Not About the Broccoli, calls “The Happy Bite”. It’s a bite your kids take because they want to, not because they have to.
As a former picky eater myself, I can say from experience that it may take months, years, even DECADES for some people to try certain foods. (Read my personal story if you need a dose of hope: I Was a Picky Eater. Here’s What I Want You To Know.)
Growing up, there were a lot of veggies on the table that I was too scared to try but now gladly eat, including green beans, cucumbers, onions, cabbage, and beets. Moral of the story: You may not see the benefits of what you’re doing right now–but positive changes may come later. Either way, it’s well worth it to keep trying.
I know it feels pointless.
I know that continuing to offer veggies to your veg-averse kid may feel like you’re pushing a boulder (or massive Brussels sprout) up a mountain, and it keeps rolling back down.
If you pre-plate your child’s food, maybe the untouched veggies could go into tomorrow’s soup or chopped salad. Or maybe you’ll have to get comfortable with wasting a few bites of veggies every night. This will be easier if you only put a bite or two on their plate to begin with.
If you serve family-style and your child refuses the bowl of veggies when they’re passed, plaster on a look of serenity and proceed with dinner.
In the meantime, fruit is a great pinch-hitter.
Yes, vegetables are important sources of important vitamins, minerals, and fiber. So is fruit. For example:
- Carrots, sweet potatoes, and spinach have vitamin A. So do apricots, cantaloupe, and mango.
- Bell peppers, broccoli, and tomatoes have vitamin C. So do strawberries, oranges, and grapefruit.
- Broccoli, spinach, and tomatoes have potassium. So do bananas, peaches, and raisins.
- Asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and romaine lettuce have folate. So do oranges, papaya, and bananas.
- Carrots, corn, and artichokes have fiber. So do apples, raspberries, and pears.
The point is not to gleefully give up on vegetables because your kid eats fruit. But it’s some needed reassurance that your child is still getting some of the same of nutrients from other foods.
Note: Keep in mind that it’s best to eat whole fruit than drink the juice because it’s more satisfying and fiber-rich that way.
Here’s what else you can do
Keep “health talk” about of it
The health perks of a particular food might be a selling point for some grown-ups–but not for most kids, who are more focused (as they should be!) on how things taste.
In fact, they’re research showing that when grown-ups talk about the nutrition perks of a food, kids want less of that food!
So skip the lecture about asparagus making you big and strong and focus on how yummy it tastes crusted with cheese. Or how they look like tall, skinny trees. Or how they make some people’s pee kinda stinky. (Definitely go with that last one.)
Embrace salt, fat, and sugar
Some parents figure that salt, fat, or sugar practically cancel out the health benefits of veggies, but that just isn’t true. A pat of butter, sprinkling of salt, dunk into cheese sauce, shower of grated cheese, drizzle of maple syrup or a few squirts of ranch dressing can make vegetables taste better to kids, so they’re more likely to eat them–and eat more of them. (In case you need more convincing: In Defense of Ranch Dressing)
Your kid may not eat six baby carrots in her lunch box, but she might eat two. She may reject a pile of green beans but nibble at one. Big portions look intimidating. Small ones seem more doable. You may feel silly putting a single green bean on a plate, but I can tell you from experience that it can work for some kids.
Divorce them from dessert
Don’t make dessert contingent upon eating–or simply trying–vegetables. That not only puts sweets on a pedestal but also sends the message to your child that vegetables are what you suffer through to get to the good stuff.
Carrots, peas, corn, and snap peas are all sweet-flavored veggies your kid may like more than veggies such as kale and broccoli.
Don’t wait until dinner
Young kids especially may be “done” by dinner, making it a terrible time for trying new or disliked foods. Instead, offer vegetables at other times of day too, including breakfast (like a green smoothie–here’s a good starter recipe for kids) and snacks (like veggies alongside cheese and pretzels on a snack platter–here are three snack platters for kids).
Tempted to get sneaky?
By all means, blend some pureed or finely-chopped veggies into your sauces, casseroles, and meatballs. Your kids will nab the nutrients, and you’ll probably feel a little bit better.
But do it out in the open, where you kid can see you chopping mushrooms into the sauce or adding pureed spinach to the smoothie. DO NOT LIE. If your ruse is discovered, your kids will learn one thing: that they can’t trust you when it comes to food.
Should your veggie-phobic kid take vitamins?
If your kid avoids veggies but eats a lot of other foods, including fruit, she’s likely doing just fine.
But if your child doesn’t doesn’t like any fruits or veggies or eats few foods in general, a children’s multivitamin can help supply nutrients they may be missing. Checking in with your child’s pediatrician or dietitian is always a good plan for figuring out what’s best.
Need more ideas? Try these vegetables for kids
Here are some kid-friendly veggie recipes and ideas:
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