I was interviewed by a journalist recently who asked me for my 5 top tips to help kids eat veggies and my suggestions came as a bit of a surprise to her.
She said she’d expected me to talk about making sauces packed full of blitzed up veggies, hiding veggies in mashed potato or making toddler muffins, but that’s not my style, I’m all for visible vegetables and I will explain why.
Why do little ones dislike veggies?
Before I dive in I think it can be helpful for you to understand why vegetables are disliked so much by toddlers and young children.
Babies are born with immature bitter and sour taste buds. The opposite can be said for the sweet ones, they are very mature and so children will always gravitate towards sweet foods. It’s an evolutionary thing as it helps newborn babies seek out the breast because breastmilk is very sweet.
Bitter and sour flavours, therefore have to be learned. This is the ethos behind the ‘veggies first’ recommendation when you start weaning. We want little ones to accept those bitter and sour tastes before they discover the wonders of the sweet stuff.
Having mature sweet taste buds means that kids get a little feeling of euphoria after they eat sweet foods. This doesn’t happen with bitter foods. This little ‘hit’ drives them to desire sweet-tasting foods over any others and it lasts right through their childhood and teenage years.
What is really interesting is that children’s threshold for sweetness is much higher than ours. They will actively seek out foods that taste 10 times sweeter than we would. For example, we all probably think a can of Coke is fairly sweet, but children are looking for something 10 times sweeter than that!
This desire for sweet foods is why children don’t really like vegetables very much! It’s not actually because they ‘dislike’ them, it’s because sweeter foods give them a much greater ‘buzz’ and sense of euphoria.
My top 5 tips
To get children to learn to like veggies we have to teach them. After all, it doesn’t count as nutrition unless it’s actually eaten.
So here are my 5 top tips to encourage children to eat veggies, which you can actually use to teach your little one to like ANY new food:
1.Serve vegetables at every meal and make sure they see you eating them too.
This is a really important first step. Lots of families – mine included have the same meals week-in, week-out on rotation.
We buy the veggies to accompany those meals but we buy the same ones, those that we know our children like will get eaten and won’t end up in the bin.
Children cant learn to like vegetables without being regularly exposed to seeing them on the dining room table. But what’s even more important is that they need to see you eating them too.
This builds trust, irrespective of their age they will know that if mum and dad are eating them too then those vegetables are ‘safe’. Young children learn by mimicking what their trusted adults do, and so by regularly eating the same foods as them, alongside them, they are likely to copy you too.
Older children and teens are influenced by their friends and so inviting a vegetable loving friend round for tea can often be all it takes to get them on to that new food.
2. Make them look nice.
All food must look attractive if you want your little one to be intrigued by them. Vegetables come in a rainbow of colours and so are easy to make look appealing. Pre-school aged children are influenced by how food is presented so get creative by cutting veggies into funny shapes or arrange them in smiley faces. Older children will visually appreciate foods that are presented on sharing platters, colourful or patterned plates or even simply serving veggies in cupcake cases can instantly lift their appeal.
3. Make them tasty.
At the same time as looking good, veggies have to taste good. Steamed veggies may be better in the healthiness stakes but they don’t hold much flavour for developing taste buds.
I’d encourage you to sauté your green beans in garlic butter, toss asparagus in soy sauce, roast your parsnips in honey (over 1’s), you can make a fab marinade for most veggies with ketchup, maple syrup and soy sauce, even adding a little salt to broccoli or Brussels sprouts can make a world of difference and yes, it’s ok.
Yes, it does make these foods higher in salt and fat, but it will encourage your child to like them, after all, it doesn’t count as nutrition unless it’s eaten!
Consider using dips as a ‘vehicle’ food so if your little one would entertain cauliflower as long as there is a dollop of ketchup to dip it in first, then so be it. One of my children will try anything so long as there is cheese on the side.
Once the veggies become an accepted part of their daily diet then you can work on reducing the salt, sugar, butter etc to improve the healthiness.
4. Let them serve themselves.
Family style serving involves placing all components of the meal individually in serving dishes in the centre of the table. Children as young as toddlers can help themselves or indicate to you what they want, how much and when to stop.
This puts them in control of the food on their plate and ultimately what goes into their body. If your little one doesn’t want to have a certain veggie on their plate, that’s OK. A thumbnail-sized amount of that veggie can go on a learning plate and sits at the side of their dinner plate.
The learning plate is simply for looking at, sniffing, prodding, poking, licking, chewing or spitting out on. It’s there just for learning all about the sensory characteristics of the new food. This is important as there are 32 different sensory steps a child must go through before a food becomes accepted to them.
Having a learning plate helps move them up the 32 step ladder as the new food is closer to them, they have to look at it, they can smell it, and touching it even with a fork or spoon is a huge step forward.
5. Have a meal/snack time routine so that they come to the table wanting to eat.
Having three meals with two snack in between and leaving a 2.5-3.5 hour gap in between each one helps your child to develop an appetite so that they come to the table wanting to eat.
Children who snack more frequently than that are continuously ‘topped up’ and never learn their appetite cues and self-regulation. The same is often seen for toddlers and preschoolers who have lots of milk (breast or otherwise) in between meals.
Routine is important for learning about appetite regulation, for understanding what being hungry feels like and for learning that food takes that hunger feeling away. It also teaches your child to feel full up.
If they don’t ever learn these cues they are less likely to want to try unfamiliar foods and the research tells us that these children tend to overeat and become overweight or obese later on in childhood.
So there you have it!
I’d love for you to try these out and let me know how you get on. Consistency is key so adopt these tips for as many mealtimes as you can because fussy eating doesn’t resolve itself quickly. We are essentially teaching children a new way to eat.
Lots of mums ask if can I suggest which vegetables are best to start with?
This depends upon the age of your child.
If you are just starting out on your baby’s weaning journey than it’s easy. Start with bitter vegetables like
If you’ve started with fruit first, all is not lost, it just might require a bit more effort. You need to keep offering the bitter veg as single foods (don’t combine them with other flavours) till your baby accepts them readily, as you need to teach your baby how they taste.
You will need to persevere as many babies will reject these flavours as they have already had something much nicer. Repeatedly offering them is key, it could take 10 to 100 times before your baby gets the hang of their flavour.
For toddlers and older children
Choose sweeter vegetables like:
Present one of them as the ‘new food’ alongside several foods they already do like. Serving family-style (see above) is really helpful here as the new food is presented for everyone at the table in a non-threatening way. And because there are foods being served that your child does like, they can come to the table feeling reassured that there will be something for them to eat.
Follow the steps above to make the veggies look nice, taste nice and give your child a learning plate.
Older children take longer to come around and so you may be doing this for months or even years, I still practice this with my 10 and 13-year-old kids when I introduce a new food, and I promise, it does work!
There are tons more tips in my ‘Positive Food Parenting’ toolbox which I’d love to share with you on my coaching programme. These help you get the foundations right for your child’s happy healthy future and apply to all ages from babies to teens.
If you’d like to get on the waiting list for my programme pop your details here to be the first to know when it’s next open.
Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist