How do I get my kids old to eat veggies? - This is a question I get asked all the time and let me tell you, although there may not be a single magic answer or overnight resolution (sorry), there are three key principles
that, if implemented correctly, will help even the fussiest eater increase the variety of their diet - access, exposure and opportunity.
Access to nutritious foods, Exposure to healthy habits and the Opportunity to enjoy them!
As a mum of a 6, 4 and 2 year old, I understand that feeding kids can be tough, but it is no coincidence that my kids enjoy eating vegetables. It’s simply a result of consistent and appropriate access, exposure and opportunity to eat and enjoy nutritious foods.
Ok, it’s not like my kids jump for joy when they are given a bowl of steamed greens (actually sometimes they do) or that they would opt for some carrot sticks over a Fredo (let’s be honest, neither would I), but my children do eat and enjoy, without coercion or drama, a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains every day.
Of course, like all children, my kids have their whims and these fickle little creatures will turn their noses up at something they loved last week - but then again, something they turned their noses up at today is likely to be their favourite food next week!
Nobody said being a parent was easy and ensuring your children develop healthy eating habits is just one of many challenges - don’t give up! Even if your child has already developed a preference for less nutritious foods, it’s never too late to get them back on the right track. Don’t expect changes to happen overnight, but plan them to last a lifetime.
Create a positive family food environment
Creating a positive family food environment is absolutely essential in shaping the eating habits of children. Ultimately, this means creating a place where food is enjoyed, prepared and shared together as a social occasion, without distractions such as the TV, phones or other gadgets,
and without stress or tension – which means if a child doesn’t want to eat
something, stay calm.
Don't force feed
Forcing a child to eat something they don’t want to has several consequences; Firstly it creates a tension around meal times and
places the foods being served, namely vegetables, in a negative context which obviously is not going to result in a positive family food environment or the food being enjoyed; Secondly, forcing a child to eat something when they don’t want to, overrides their satiety cues which can cause them to over eat and can lead to weight problems. Even nutritious foods in amounts more than is needed can lead to weight gain.
Allow children to regulate their own appetite
Children are very good at regulating their appetite and should be allowed to gauge their own hunger. Allow and encourage them to finish eating when they have had enough, whether their plate is empty or not. Keep in mind that a child’s stomach is far smaller than an adults and serving sizes should reflect this. Serving a large plate of food to a child can
also be very overwhelming and in itself cause resistance to eating. Serve a small plate first as they can always have seconds if they wish. This helps to reduce waste too.
Small regular meals and snacks
Given that children do have smaller stomachs, small regular meals and snacks are appropriate (every 2 – 3 hours). Aim to provide meals and snacks when a child is hungry, let them finish eating when they have had enough, but once they leave the table don’t allow them any other food until the next snack or meal time. This expectation of a child to wait until the next meal or snack needs to be appropriate to the child’s age and level of understanding.
Similarly, a fussy eater may need to have a time limit put on their meals, around 20mins is generally suitable or 5mins after everyone else has finished, after which their plate is taken away and nothing more is available until the next meal. This of course is not to say a meal should be rushed.
Water should be readily available, particularly during hotter month.
Children sometime can confuse thirst with hunger, especially when they are in the habit of drinking milk when they are hungry.
Parent role modelling
Parents are the greatest role model a child has, particularly during the younger years, and as such eating and enjoying a meal together is extremely important in teaching children to eat a nutritious diet.
Prepare one family meal
Preparing one family meal is part and parcel of parent role modelling as well as creating a positive family food environment where a meal is enjoyed together.
Preparing only one meal reinforces that there are no other food options available for that particular meal, which is a message that needs to be consistent. Parents are notorious for breaking this rule and children are savvy little creatures that learn pretty quickly if they refuse one thing they will be given something else.
Peer role modelling
Parents are obviously not the only role model in a child's life. Kids learn all sorts of things from their friends amongst other places and eating habits are no different.
Have a play date with children who are known to be good eaters and put these peer influence to work in your favour. Also be aware of negative influence on your child's food choices like advertising.
Offer rejected foods 10-15 times
We all have foods we don’t like and for children being unfamiliar with a food is good enough reason not to 'like' it.
Introducing a new food 10 – 15 times allows a child ample opportunity to become familiar with it and eventually, hopefully, give it a try. Some tactful comments and parent role modelling while the food is being introduced can be beneficial in encouraging a child to try a new food, “yum, this carrot is really crunchy,” “oh I love the colour of this broccoli.”
If a child decides they don't like the food once they have tried it a few times, that's ok, remember to stay calm and try reintroducing it
in a few months time.
Offer a variety of foods of different colours and textures
Not only does offering a child a wide variety of foods expose them to a wide variety of nutrients, it also increase a child’s exposure to a range of tastes and textures which assist to increase acceptance of different foods.
Introduce new foods slowly
Although a wide variety of food in the diet is the ultimate goal, new foods should be introduced slowly. How frequently you introduce a new food will really depend on how quick your child accepts different foods. For some children they may be happy to have one new/different food added at each meal, while others may need to have the new food introduced and offered for several weeks (10 – 15 exposures), before it is accepted and they are ready to move on to additional new foods.
Just remember to stay calm and be patient. Forming habits to last a lifetime takes time.
Offer foods before milk
If you want your child to eat the nutritious food you have prepared be sure they are hungry. Given children have small stomachs, milk can be very filling so avoid giving them large amounts of milk or other fluids before meal times.
Don’t use food as a reward
This is a big problem that we are all probably guilty of at times. Rewarding a child for eating their vegetables with desert, simply reinforces to a child that vegetables are a less desirable food and emphasises that desert is desirable. Rewarding, bribing or comforting a child with food also sets up emotional cues with eating – I have achieved something, so I deserve a ‘treat;’ I just endured something unpleasant (work, school, whatever...), so I deserve a ‘treat;’ I need emotional comforting, so I will eat something ‘pleasant.’
Hidden veggies are great, but always offer them on the plate too
Hiding vegetables is a great way to get your kids to eat them, quiet often without them even knowing. However it is also important for children to learn to accept vegetables as they are. Continue to hide vegetables wherever you can but be sure to also give your children the opportunity to become familiar with them by serving them on their plate too.
Encourage children to be involved with choosing, preparing and growing food where possible
If you want children to be interested in nutritious food get them involved with choosing, growing and preparing foods.
Fussy eating behaviours are often underpinned by struggles for independence so allow them to take control of what they eat by giving them simple choices (would you like an apple or banana), get them involved in planning the weekly dinner menu, and encourage them to be involved in packing their lunchbox. Keep the tasks age appropriate but don't under estimate their capabilities (My Kitchen Milestones).
Growing fruit, vegetables and herbs together has many benefits. Children are often more willing to try different fruits and vegetables if they have been involved in growing them. Choose things that grow quickly, like sprouts, so children don't loose interest in the project.
Growing foods as well as being involved with preparing and cooking foods also helps children become familiar with them before they are expected to eat them. Increasing familiarity with different foods goes a long way to increase acceptance.
Remember to be consistent, persistent and patient.
All children are different, strategies that work for one child may not work for another. Some children are far more resistant than other, but please don't give up, your children's health and a lifetime of eating behaviour depends on your persistence.
Get creative in the kitchen and try as many different recipes as you can (and as many ways to hide veggies as you can). Some of my favourite snacks for kids includes vegetables sticks and dip, soft vegetables like corn or avocado for younger children, savoury muffins, fresh fruit or a healthy fruit option like bliss balls, homemade chicken nuggets, and mini pizzas.
I would love to hear your fussy eater stories and what has or hasn't worked for you. Please feel free to share the healthy recipes that your kids love too.
PS. Sorry there is no pics, they wouldn't upload
Nikki is a PhD qualified Nutritionist and an expert in children's eating.