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:
1. Start early by reading picture books about veggies to your kids.
Three studies have shown that exposure through picture books increased a young child’s willingness to taste new foods. Favorite books include The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert.
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.
3. Treat vegetables like fast food.
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.” (Of course, keep your kids involved in prepping, cooking, and serving veggies at most snacks and meals, too.) 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.
4. Play with your food.
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 gameplan for introducing 20 different vegetables via food play (such as washable beet tattoos and cabbage bingo) and quick, delicious recipes, including veggie desserts.