What parents don't want their kids to eat their vegetables? In shades of green, red, orange, and even white, vegetables boast many virtues. With little fat and relatively few calories, vegetables pack in dietary fiber to fill kids up. They also promote healthy bowel function, and can reduce constipation. They also boast important vitamins and minerals including vitamins A and C, folate, and potassium. Studies suggest that eating a produce-rich diet is linked with lower body weight and reduced chronic disease risk—and it may even help kids do better in school.
Despite many parents' best attempts to feed their families well, many kids continue to fall short on daily vegetable intake. And so do parents. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that overall intake of both fruits and vegetables is low. And national surveys show that, on average, kids fall short of getting the one to three daily cups of vegetables recommended. And despite the fact that kids need a wide variety of colorful vegetables, fried potatoes comprise nearly half of all the vegetables kids eat.
If you know your family isn't making the grade when it comes to vegetable intake, keeping them on hand and offering them in an appealing way can provide a good start. Eating and enjoying vegetables in front of your kids can also help. Here are seven more expert and real mom tips to help you get more vegetables onto your kids' plates—and into their mouths—without a food fight.
Say yay to the puree: "Sneaking vegetables into your children's food is easier than you think—and it can help picky eaters get the nutrition they need," says Sneaky Chef Missy Chase Lapine. "I puree whole veggies like spinach and yams to bump up the nutritional power of everyday meals. These are great additions to chicken nuggets, mac 'n cheese, and pizza—foods kids already love." Lapine blends the purees until they're smooth. "Pumping up foods with purees is especially good for kids who are put off by foods made with large chunks of vegetables," says Lapine.
Watch them grow. Learning how food is made, especially in the ground, is a great way to entice children to eat the food. Registered dietitian Rebecca Subbiah, a mother of two, has found that growing their own vegetables, picking local berries, and visiting farmer's markets has helped her kids want to eat vegetables. Registered dietitian Zari Ginsburg, a mother of three, agrees. She adds, "It's an incredible thrill to plant seeds, watch them sprout, and see the fruits (and vegetables) of our labor. Just the other day, we harvested some crispy, delicious string beans. My kids found watching the whole process from start to finish gratifying."
Do a dip. According to Janice Newell Bissex, a registered dietitian and mother of two, "Offering small portions of flavorful dipping sauces can increase kids' vegetable intake because kids love to dip." She says low fat salad dressing, salsa, and even ketchup are just some of the dips that make her kids gobble up their vegetables. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that dressing up a reduced-fat dip with herbs and/or spices made preschool children more willing to taste, eat, and enjoy vegetables—even those they wouldn't touch or didn't like before. Mother of three, Kim Wakefield, says her three sons often ask for a veggie plate but only if it comes with the ultimate dip—hummus. "They love to dip cucumber spears, carrots, snap peas, baby tomatoes, and baby peppers into plain hummus, sometimes with a touch of spice added to it," she adds.
Slip 'em in. To encourage her four year-old who is somewhat risk averse to eating whole vegetables, Michelle Dudash recently told Parents.com she dices mushrooms and onions really fine in a food processor and adds them to meatloaf. The author of Clean Eating for Busy Families then serves the cut up meatloaf over whole-grain spaghetti with pasta sauce, which usually has more diced vegetables in it. Similarly, Wakefield adds shredded cauliflower to scrambled eggs or tomato sauce. "Finely chopped broccoli and zucchini also work great in tomato sauce to top pasta or other dishes," she adds.
Just drink it. To jump start the day, Wakefield offers her boys smoothies for breakfast. Alongside carrots and spinach, she makes the smoothies with a combination of orange juice, plain Greek yogurt, frozen berries, flax, and protein powder. "The kids drink these up happily, and the frozen berries mean we don't need to water down the smoothies by adding ice," she adds.
Keep it simple. Dudash, a registered dietitian, makes sure to keep on hand plenty of "snack vegetables" like baby carrots well as canned vegetables. For kids who may not like vegetables served raw, Newell Bissex recommends simply roasting them. She says, "I find that roasting vegetables makes them taste sweeter and more appealing to many kids. Top with a sprinkle of kosher salt and you're good to go." Wakefield also stocks her freezer with frozen peas or green beans for her kids to snack on.
Read it so they'll eat it. A study published in Psychological Science found that after being read books about digestion, foods, and nutrients, and being asked questions about them, four to five year-old children ate twice as many vegetables at snack time as they normally did. The researchers said that while they explained to children why their body needs different kinds of healthy food, they didn't specifically train them to eat more vegetables. (You can check out Nutrition for Kids for some great resources to help kids learn about nutrition.)
How do you help your kids eat their vegetables?
Image of a beautiful vegetable garden via Zari Ginsburg.