This post is written in partnership with a Seattle Children’s parent, Beverly Emerson, who wanted to give back to our efforts. She’s a mom, food marketing, and R& D executive who has been thinking about how to get healthy food choices out to children for over 2 decades.
My two boys eat veggies pretty well. But that’s like saying Tuesdays are always good days. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it isn’t, of course because I’m raising humans on the planet and every day is something a little new. I think the reminders from Beverly may trigger some change in us. Beverly answers this:
“How can I get my child to eat two cups of vegetables a day?”
According to government recommendations, our kids need between 1 and 3 cups per day depending on their age. Does it feel like that is a dream? Like one of those stretch-goals that will never be hit? There are some tricks to make it easier, and none of them involve hiding vegetables, but actually encourage kids to embrace the fresh flavors and textures of vegetables in their natural state. Yes, it really is possible!
Here are three keys in getting kids to eat (and LIKE) their vegetables:
1. Start Early & Keep Going
Research shows that if a pregnant woman eats vegetables regularly in pregnancy, her infant will be more accepting of the flavors as well during the transition from milk-based diet to introduction of complementary foods. But acceptance begins to decrease as kids move into toddlerhood and preschool years. Humans are biologically wired to dislike bitter foods, and so we need to work at continuously exposing our children to the flavors. Susan B. Roberts, a Tufts University nutritionist and co-author of the book “Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health,” suggests putting a food on the table at least 15 times to see if a child will accept it. At our house, we use a “thank you bite” model. We insist that our children have one tiny “thank you” bite of a new food simply to expose them. I know that she won’t like it the first time, and maybe not the fifth time. But suddenly, she’s reaching for a full helping! Until that happens, you can prepare dishes that YOU will eat so you don’t feel like you’re wasting food.
2. Model Frequency & Variety
We know that children are watching us all the time, learning from us whether we want them to or not. Eating habits are no exception. Children who watch their parents eat vegetables regularly are more likely to do the same. Prepare a variety of vegetables in a variety of ways. Snap peas, for example, can be enjoyed raw with a variety of dips (perhaps create several and have the kids do a taste test!). On another occasion, try stir-frying with ginger or garlic. Brussel sprouts cooked so they are really soft and mixed with bacon become tough to refuse. My kids won’t eat raw cauliflower, but they love it roasted – the natural sweetness comes out. Our meals always include some sort of vegetable – even if I’m the only one eating the Swiss chard and golden raisins!
3. Provide Involvement
For older children, it seems that if they are more involved in the growing, harvesting, or preparation of the vegetable, they are more likely to eat it. You don’t need a large patch of land. A container can provide room for lettuce, or a green bean plant. Provide opportunities for older kids to learn how to chop broccoli or smash garlic. Younger kids relish the chance to eat tomato or broccoli soup through a straw. Mine like eating with their hands – so I provide a rice wrapper filled with lettuce and beans. Sometimes the method of eating can help overcome resistance. For lunch, my kids love anything in a thermos, including leftover stir fry, chock-full of carrots and broccoli.
The real key in getting kids to eat their vegetables lies in not giving up. Continually model healthy choices, and don’t be afraid to do a lot of experimenting. We would never consider giving up on teaching our kids good study habits, or how to clean up after themselves – let’s not give up on vegetables either.
Mom and President, Olive Tree Product Development