One of parenting’s toughest dilemmas is how to get kids to eat their vegetables. Time-worn strategies are passed down from generation to generation, including “Stay at the table until you eat your peas,” and “No dessert until you eat your spinach.”
Problem is, those strategies might make a kid eat, but he’ll likely still hate vegetables. The key is to help kids learn to love vegetables while taking the tension out of family mealtimes.
Here are four surprising ways, backed by research, that you can help your kids learn to accept (and even love!) vegetables:
Fruits and veggies don’t belong just on your kid’s plate; you can stock her bookshelf with healthy eats too. Reading about broccoli might even convince her to put some in her mouth: three studies have shown that exposure through picture books increased a young child’s willingness to taste new foods.
Take a bite out of these fresh picks:
For Babies: Food is fun for even the tiniest eaters in your bunch with 123 the Farm and Me, a new board book from America’s Test Kitchen. You and your little one will count as each of the ingredients that makeup a pizza travels from the farm to the grocery store to a family’s dinner table. We’ll take a slice of that delicious pie, please! Ages 0 to 3
For Toddlers: Guess what? Gardens are full of Vegetables in Underwear. Beets sport big ones. Potatoes don small ones. Celery favors briefs. And peas prefer drawers. But, wait, babies don’t wear underwear! If you have a potty-training kid in the house, you may need Jared Chapman’s hilarious follow-up to his Fruits in Suits. Ages 2 to 5
For Preschoolers: Matilda Macaroni loves jambalaya and paella, but her mom and dad are into grilled cheese and cereal. In Ryan Miller’s How to Feed Your Parents, Matilda will do anything to get her picky folks to branch out. With some convincing, the tiny cook’s “yucky” dishes just might become regular meals. Ages 3+
Children are more likely to taste new foods if you present it with a smile. So put on your best award-winning performance and smile, even if you suspect your child is going to balk or even if you’re not crazy about the vegetable yourself.
Nuggets, french fries and burgers are popular because kids are consistently exposed to them via media, kids’ meals, billboards, and restaurant signage. One research study showed that preschoolers see, on average, three fast-food ads per day and teens even more.
So start advertising vegetables in your house by hanging up pretty pictures of veggies, admiring their colors at the grocery store, making up stories where the heroes are super-veggies, and talking about your own favorite vegetable dishes. When we consider that kids typically need eight to 15 exposures to a new food just to enhance the acceptance of it, it’s clear that we need to keep running our own personal veggie commercials on a daily basis.
Of course, keep your kids involved in prepping, cooking, and serving veggies at most snacks and meals, too. You can even get sneaky and try out recipes with them that transform their favorite fast food into veggies, like this one for Green Bean Fries pictured above!
Multiple studies have shown that sensory food play (activities that include as many sense as possible) via games, food crafts, and cooking influence a child’s love for all kinds of new tastes – including vegetables.
In fact, when toddlers and preschoolers engaged in sensory food play every day for four weeks, astonishing changes occurred. The kids touched and even tasted more vegetables by the end of the month! Think of food play as a first playdate. It takes time to make friends, but with repeated get-togethers, these friendships can last forever.
Most importantly, never give up. Keep exposing your kids to healthy foods via food play, cooking, and creating new recipes together. It’s the repeated exposure over time that creates adventurous, healthy eaters and happier mealtimes for everyone.
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, is an award-winning author, international speaker on parenting, and feeding expert. Her fourth book, Adventures in Veggieland: Help Your Kids Learn to Love Vegetables with 100 Easy Activities and Recipes offers a game-plan for introducing 20 different vegetables via food play (such as washable beet tattoos and cabbage bingo) and quick, delicious recipes, including veggie desserts.