Food has always been the centre of my universe and as a mother, I wanted to put great emphasis on home cooked family meals with a variety of vegetables in every colour, shape and size. But, little did I know my children did not have the same intention. Once my kids turned the age of 2, a trigger went off in their brains saying, “I don’t like that, that looks different, it tastes yucky!?” They started to turn their noses up at vegetables! And like most mothers, I found it so frustrating spending time on healthy meals that wouldn’t get eaten by my kids and dinners that would sometimes end in tears ;0
I couldn’t understand why would my 2-year-old not eat mushrooms any more when he would gobble them up any chance he got previously. But, I realised that being 2 is a time to test the boundaries, push the limits, become independent and have a choice to eat or not to eat something. Plus, sugar was introduced in treats during gatherings and parties, which made vegetables look unappetising. I was starting to pull my hair out!
When my second child was weaning, I implemented baby led weaning allowing more independence with food and the convenience of giving her the same food we were eating. Supposedly, baby led weaning sets babies up with a good appetite and acceptance of different food and textures. She would eat anything for me and I mean her dinner plus mine! But, then she turned the age of 2 and the struggles with food began yet again. At least this time I had the experience with this phase and knew to engage in her tantrums would not make her eat or lead to happy dinner time. I started to adopt different methods with my kids that would make meal times a bit more enjoyable and encourage them to eat vegetables in a fun way. And because food is my passion and a top priority for my kids, I tested recipes, tried various approaches and took on a positive attitude to alleviate the food pickiness.
So, here are my tried and tested tips that helped me to get my kids to eat vegetables and also enjoy them. Note - that each kid is different and not all of the tips may work for you, but take your time to try out a few methods and see which ones work best with your kids.
6 ways to get your kids to eat more vegetables:
1. Sneaky vegetables
I sometimes think that hiding vegetables in food don’t allow our children to see vegetables in their true form. We all like to disguise our vegetables - shhh they’re not really there. But, if your kid is really refusing to eat vegetables maybe this is a way for them to start to get familiar to taste vegetables among other flavours. Some kids can spot a vegetable in a meal even if it's hidden; therefore, with these kids be careful with how you hide the vegetables be it the texture or the colour. My favourite sneaky vegetables are in tomato sauce with a pasta dish. Select a couple of vegetables like onions, carrots, red pepper or courgette and chop them up small. Cover the vegetables with a bit of olive oil and roast them in the oven until browned. Add them with your tomato puree or passata in a medium pot and allow to simmer for a few minutes. Next, blend the vegetables together with the tomatoes adding in salt, pepper, a bit of sweetness (honey or Xylitol) and herbs. This makes a lovely sauce and you would never know there were hidden vegetables.
Other sneaky ideas are adding shredded beets into your meatballs or meatloaf, courgette ribbons with spaghetti, muffins and cakes with shredded carrots or courgette, adding cauliflower or celeriac with your mashed potatoes, using puree pumpkin or butternut squash with your mac and cheese, blending vegetables together in a soup or adding in extra diced vegetables into a chili (carrots, peppers, sweet potato) or shepherd's pie (celery and mushrooms).
2. Have fun with games
I have to admit that having fun at dinner or lunch or even breakfast will make the whole experience much more enjoyable. Kids at this young age want to have fun and get a great kick out of us parents playing along in their games. Sometimes they don’t even know they are eating vegetables or what’s been put in front of them because they are occupied with something else. Playing games could be anything and I don’t mean food fights!
Some examples that I have done are the every bite game - for every bit you take we’ll tell a joke, say a superhero, sing a song, ask me a question, pretend to be an animal and so on. I’ve found the restaurant game quite entertaining as I am pretending to be the chef and the waiter and the kids are my customers (in my world this is real). I have fun asking questions like, "sir how is your food, would you like some salt, how do you like the restaurant?" Also, to get them to eat more of their food, I make up games like pretending the cut up green beans in their rice are stars and ask if they can eat all their stars or I’ve used cut up beets in a rice dish and pretend they are berries - “you better eat all your berries.” Sometimes the aeroplane game works for the younger ones and having a little toy nearby can help too.
3. Get creative and silly with your food
Another way in having fun is to make your food look presentable and in a way that both you and the kids would want to eat it. Imagine if you were in a restaurant and you were served a glob of something on your plate that you couldn’t make out what it was. Your kids feel the same way - Ewww what is that. So make it look appetising and fun. The easiest way to do this is by making silly faces. For instance, say you are having grilled chicken with mash potatoes, carrots and peas: place your chicken in the middle of the plate as the head, spread out your mash potatoes as hair and use the carrots and peas as the face and body. You can then say, “No don’t eat my eyes, I won’t be able to see” and focus on different parts to eat. This goes well with sandwiches and homemade pizzas too - let them make their own silly faces.
A few other examples that I have used are naming the food after something with a novelty - as a green veggie juice or smoothie is the Hulk juice and you will be strong after it, or roasted chickpeas are Pacman (they kind of look like this). Using cookie cutters such as stars, moons or hearts to shape your vegetables or mash can also spice up the look of their meal.
4. Let them cook with you
I know what you are thinking, this can make cooking even more difficult. But, you can choose what they help you with like peeling potatoes, or putting the cut-up vegetables in the pot and stirring. Or they can just have an extra pot on the ground beside you and you can give them the leftover vegetable ends for them to make their own concoction. Making them part of the cooking experience not only previews what they are going to eat, but it also gives them pride in helping with the meal leading them to eat what they have created. Let them taste the food along the way - ask if it needs more of anything or an ingredient to be added.
Being part of this experience can also be choosing recipes from your cookbooks, Pinterest board, Instagram and even getting them their own cookbook (check out the library’s options). Another way is to bring them shopping with you - let them have a grocery list with a few ingredients for them to get or look out for. Acknowledge the ingredients you put into your basket - "here is the broccoli, this will be our main ingredient for the broccoli cheese soup" and give it to them to observe and put into your basket. This exercise keeps them engaged and less distracted on other things. They will also feel important that they are helping you in the process.
5. Add a dip, topping or something familiar
Presenting a new recipe to kids that looks, smells and tastes different can be an immediate rejection. But when you pair it with something familiar it makes it less threatening 😉. For instance, add a dip or dipper; this can be hummus, yoghurt, honey or nut butter for raw veggie sticks, or a side of crackers or mini toasts with a vegetable soup. Add a topping to food like a dollop of yoghurt on carrot soup, shredded cheese to a veggie pasta dish or avocado to your tacos.
When you know the food that they like, perhaps you can try to change it up a bit. Maybe adding some vegetables to a pizza or making quesadillas with different ingredients they can choose from like cheese, black beans, rice, chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, chopped peppers, shredded carrots). This provides familiarity with the food they already like and helps them to make a positive connection with the meal.
6. Make a rainbow or vegetable chart
Sometimes we need to do some positive reinforcement in trying new foods. I have used a couple of charts that have been really good at getting my kids to taste different vegetables (and fruits). There are two ways you can create such a chart. One chart is eating a rainbow, which you can look online for templates to either print or make a hand made a chart together with your child. Check out the Food Revolution blog for a guide. Each row on your chart can be a colour (red, orange, yellow, green, blue/purple, white) and then the columns can be the number of times to try each colour (I would put at least 5 trials). When they have tried the colour, place a star or sticker on the chart. This encourages them to eat different colours or maybe even seeing if they can eat all the colours in one day. Adding the stickers may be enough, but if you want more rewards to decide how to go about it - maybe if they try 1 colour 6 times they can pick out a recipe to make or they get extra story time.
In addition to the rainbow chart, the vegetable chart is helpful in identifying certain vegetables. I got some poster board and had my son draw lines with a ruler to create a table. We chose 8 different vegetables to try and I either showed him what it looked like if I had it on hand or we looked for an online picture. We then drew each vegetable on the chart. When he tried each vegetable 5 times, he got a surprise to be it a colouring book, pencil or something related to cooking. These charts make it easy for kids to distinguish vegetables and it encourages them to experiment with their food.
Now you have 6 ways to get your kids to eat more vegetables and I would love to hear which methods work best for you. If you need support with a kid-friendly meal plan, contact me for a consultation and I’ll work with you to create a customised programme. Happy veggie eating!
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