I’m very lucky (and I don’t mean to sound smug here!) but I have a child who eats vegetables! Not only that but he will actually ASK for vegetables! I know, I know, it’s a very rare thing and I’m expecting him to grow out of it very soon, after all he’s only three! My son was diagnosed with a milk allergy when he was just over a year old and put on soya milk. Prior to this he couldn’t physically swallow anything and so I put this unusual behavior down to the fact that he was just so grateful to have food that he just ate anything! Also he’s not given much choice as there’s a lot of food that contains ingredients derived from milk and therefore he just can’t have them so he doesn’t really know any better!
My friends who have similar aged children however aren’t so lucky and recently we were discussing how their babies who ate everything put in front of them had suddenly grown into picky eaters who turn their noses up at anything remotely healthy! (Apart from my son who was stuffing his face with grapes and carrot sticks at the time whilst I tried to hide my smug smile!)
Anyway it got me thinking, is there a way to get kids to eat healthy food or is it an impossible task?
1. Make Food Fun
For a kid a plate of vegetables can be intimidating but why do mealtimes have to be boring? I’ve seen parents who play with their kids all day long running about, pretending to be wild animals in the jungle yet as soon as meal times arrive they’re sat around the table, all looking tense and it’s only a matter of time before an argument breaks out. Why can’t the fun they were having twenty minutes or so before continue? Kids love make believe so instead of putting down a plate of broccoli whilst muttering the immortal words “eat your vegetables or else there’s no TV later,” why not smile and tell them they’re all going to pretend to be dinosaurs and everyone has to eat at least five broccoli trees before they can return home to their dinosaur caves? You could even make it into a race to see who can eat the most ‘trees’ first.
If you’re running low on ideas for role play at mealtimes why not get creative and arrange the food into different shapes such as faces (happy or sad!) or hearts or boats or you could shape food using cookie cutters. Not only does it look more interesting but it spreads the food out on the plate and it’s a proven fact that children like their foods separate rather than dumped together in a pile. (My partner still won’t eat any food that’s touching which shows some people never grow out of this!)
2.Get Kids Involved
I can’t think of anything better than someone calling me to the dinner table and presenting me with a home cooked meal! However if your child isn’t as enthusiastic try and involve them from the very beginning, they’re less likely to turn their nose up if they’ve had a hand in the preparation. Plan meals out for each day and let them make some choices themselves then you can discuss what is healthy and what isn’t in a way that’s appropriate to their age. (You can give younger children an option for each day such as “would you like pasta or baked potato?”) If they choose something that isn’t healthy such as chicken nuggets and fries, instead of saying no outright get them to agree to extras such as a salad or some sort of vegetable side dish. Make a list of everything you need then go shopping together.
Once it’s time to prepare the meal giving them (age appropriate) jobs such as washing vegetables, peeling potatoes and carrots, mixing a dressing or making a sauce can make children feel important and make them more likely to at least try a meal once it’s made. It also teaches them how to make simple dishes.
Starting a garden is another good way to get children involved and will give them a sense of pride and make them more likely to try what they’ve grown. They’ll like nothing more than boasting to grandparents, parents, friends or whoever, that they’ve grown part of the meal. If you don’t have a lot of space things like potatoes are easy to grow in large tubs and don’t take a lot of time or money!
3. Try To Think Like A Child
Children aren’t like adults, they’re not thinking about their cholesterol (they don’t need too!) nor are they associating not eating a plate of carrots or beans with getting ill. They don’t look at a plate of vegetables and think “oh I better eat this because otherwise when I’m an adult I might end up with heart disease!” Most kids feel invincible so telling them to eat a meal because it’s healthy won’t usually work and may even have the opposite effect. In Kid World healthy = yucky!
However most children want to be bigger or stronger so instead of talking about obesity and other diseases kids don’t really understand and don’t need to be worrying about why not say things such as “eating that will make you strong like daddy”? Indeed my mom used to tell me that carrots would make me see in the dark and bread turned your hair curly! (Which was appealing to the only straight haired kid in an otherwise curly haired family!)
4. Add Flavor
Who said that vegetables have to be served alone without anything to make them yummy? People season other food so why can’t you ‘spice up’ vegetables and fruit? If the aim is to get your child to eat more of these types of food then try and make it more appealing by serving it alongside something they do like such as a cheese sauce or mixed with some butter? Sprinkle sugar on fruit or serve sprouts with cream cheese. A few extra calories as part of a balanced diet won’t hurt your child (in fact if they’re active they’ll probably need them anyway!) Once your child becomes familiar with the food and starts to eat the vegetables then you can reduce the amount of extra flavoring you’ve added.
5. Where’s The Veg?
This was part of the discussion I had with my friends and I said that my mom’s idea of hiding carrots was to mix them in with mashed potato. Whether she thought I just wouldn’t notice the lumps I don’t know but it didn’t work. To fool a child you need to be sneakier so some cleverer suggestions of hiding fruit and vegetables include:
Blending extra vegetables into a sauce and serving with pasta.
Making fresh fruit juice then freezing them into popsicles.
Baking banana and apple muffins
Making fruit smoothies
Mixing fruit and milk to make ice cream
Hide diced vegetables in meatloaf or homemade burgers
Puree into soups
Mashing veg up and mixing it with mashed potatoes.
You can also buy pasta made from carrots or zucchini. I’ve not tried it myself but apparently it has the same (or similar) texture to normal pasta but healthier!
6. Stick To The One Bite Rule
Getting a child to eat vegetables, especially if they’ve never really been keen, isn’t going to be easy. Research shows that a child needs to be exposed to a food at least eight to ten times (some say up to fifteen) in order to ‘acquire a taste for it’. A lot of parents have had success by insisting a child take at least one bite of a something before declaring they don’t like it. That isn’t to say if you present them with a pile of green beans at every mealtime they’ll suddenly start eating with gusto but by trying different vegetables at meal times will eventually make them more familiar and give them the opportunity to discover which ones they like and which ones they really, genuinely hate!
7. Don’t Threaten or Bribe
My mom always used to say to me “if you don’t finish your dinner then you don’t get dessert”. This usually didn’t bother me as I wasn’t a kid with a big appetite and would usually be too full for dessert anyway so when this threat didn’t work she changed tactics and it became “eat everything on your plate or you’ll get nothing else all day.” Most of the time my dad would throw whatever I’d left on my plate in the trashcan when her back was turned or else she wouldn’t want to send me to bed hungry so would cave in but I do remember a couple of occasions when she gave me the plate of cold vegetables I’d left at lunch whilst everyone else tucked into chicken sandwiches!
Her other favorite was “you don’t move until everything has gone” and I’d be left sat at the table pushing peas around my plate whilst my siblings watched movies or played games until someone – again usually my dad – dismissed me from the table.
Clearly these tactics were unsuccessful and made mealtimes into a battle of wills and created a negative atmosphere. I’d dread mealtimes as I knew there would be at least one or two things I wouldn’t be able to eat whilst my mom would be stressed out because she knew full well I wouldn’t eat it and we’d end up arguing. Although I used to hate it when my mom got angry I never sat down at the table and thought “I’m going to eat my peas because otherwise my mom will be mad”. In fact I remember almost retching as I tried to eat a plate of peas because I truly didn’t like them. (Even as an adult I hate them even though I’ve tried them numerous times – around eight to ten to be exact!) Making threats will just make the child feel resentment and could have the opposite effect of making them even picker and eat less food.
Ask the child to try at least one bit of everything but don’t force them to finish.
Remember – One Bite No Fight!
8. Give Them What They Like
That’s not to say if they only want chicken nuggets and chips they should have it for every meal but if you know for a fact that your child likes green beans and not cauliflower for example, why not dish up extra beans to them and only one piece of cauliflower? This makes it less daunting for them and is also more of an achievement if the child then tries some or eats all of it than if you give them a pile of cauliflower that they only take one bite of and leave.
There’s no rule that says children have to like type of fruit and vegetable so give them a variety and keep a note of what they enjoy and what they don’t. It also pays to try serving them in different ways to see as it may be the texture they don’t like. For example I used to hate cooked carrots so my dad would peel them and let me eat them raw instead. My mom used to get really mad and say I should eat them cooked but I was still getting the benefit so what did it matter?
My mom knew I preferred tinned fruit so would stock up on this for desserts and snacks and offer it if I didn’t want fresh. Although fresh technically better, again its still fruit and still has vitamins in.
Pick your battles – if your child is eating fruit for snack but doesn’t want to eat peas with their dinner, they’ve still had something healthy. If you serve them a salad and they eat the lettuce and celery but pick out the tomato don’t fly off the handle but praise them for what they have eaten.
9. Limit Snacks
Children can be crafty. If your child refuses to eat their dinner yet are complaining an hour later that they’re hungry it can be tempting to give in and reach for the cookie jar. However try to stay strong and say no as this will only teach them to refuse food they’re not keen on because they can always snack on something better later! You can always give them their next meal a little bit earlier or why not offer them a healthy snack such as fruit or raw vegetable sticks with dip? If they genuinely are hungry then they should eat anything you offer them!
10. Reward Good Behavior
Instead of creating a negative food experience try and make it a positive one using praise. This could be verbal or if you’ve introduced a new food which they’ve tried or they’ve had a bite of a food they don’t like you could also use stickers. This will make tasting more appealing and the children will start to look at new food positively.
Don’t overly praise one child who likes carrots and ignore another child who doesn’t. Oh how I used to hate my sister’s smug face because she liked peas and I didn’t! Instead offer encouragement and praise to both. For instance if the child who doesn’t like peas ate their carrots or tried a mouthful of the dreaded vegetable, praise them for this instead. Chances are the child who eats the peas turns their nose up at something else another day.
11. Set An Example
Come on, admit it, most adults (you included!) would prefer to eat less vegetables at mealtimes however if you tend to pile on the meat and potatoes and squeeze the healthy stuff into a tiny corner of the plate just so you can feel like you’ve eaten a bit of veg then your kids will copy.
The recommendation is that half of your plate should be filled with fruit and vegetables, a quarter should be grains and a quarter proteins so get spooning those peas and carrots on your plate as well as your kids’…