we share our top tips!
One of the most common complaints from parents who are trying to give their children a healthy and balanced diet, is that their child won’t eat vegetables. How do you handle a fussy eater who picks out the most finely diced vegetables and refuses, point blank, to eat anything green? Here are our ways to help ensure that your children will happily eat their 5-9 portions a day.
Dr Jess says: My daughter Amelia went through this phase at the age of two, which is a common age for picky eating to develop. She was much more stubborn when we tried to force her to eat vegetables, despite us trying every form of bribery or punishment we could think of!
We learned that gentle persuasion and consistency were key in getting her to change (it took us six long months – she is determined, like her mother!) We kept introducing different vegetables and slowly things improved. Now, we have a child of nine, who we are so proud of when she asks for more vegetables!
1. give your children some control
Children (and some adults!) don’t fully understand the importance of long-term gain. They are all about short-term satisfaction and thinking, which is why they will almost always choose a chocolate bar over an apple. Clearly, the chocolate bar tastes better! If they are new to eating vegetables, they may also struggle to understand why you are suddenly trying to force them to eat strange and bitter-tasting green things on their plate.
Telling them that it’s good for them, or that they can’t leave the table until they have eaten their vegetables rarely works and can be counterproductive, leaving them with more negative associations. They often dig in their heels so that it becomes a daily battle of wills. Instead, try these tips
- Let them get to know vegetables better. Take them to the shop and let them get involved with picking out the vegetables you are going to eat. Have them pick the ones that they want and take them to be paid for at the till. Limit their selection to 3 or 5 if you are struggling.
- Make whatever vegetable they have chosen your ‘vegetable of the week’ and get them involved with different ways to prepare it. If they are old enough, let them pick recipes that get them to try making it. If not, get them to choose which way to cook them (give them two options) and have them be involved in the process.
- For younger children, make sure they can see how the vegetable is being prepared. Make it exciting! If it helps, give the vegetable a funny name or assign it a superpower and make it a big part of the meal.
2. make it fun!
Many children’s worst enemy is boredom. They want your attention and will take whatever they can get, regardless of whether that attention is positive or negative (this is why shouting rarely works). Instead, engage with your children using excited voices, gestures, making faces and shapes and even singing songs for younger children.
If your children are a bit older, it’s more about making them feel special and part of the process. They can then feel proud of choosing and even cooking the vegetable – this is much more likely to persuade them that they want to eat it. The difference between vegetables and crisps or sweets is not just the taste. A big part of the junk food industry is marketing. You have to create your own marketing plan for your chosen vegetable!
Some ideas we use are:
- Broccoli looks like a tiny tree, which you can ‘plant’ in mash around the plate. Our daughter believed that if she ate all her ‘trees’ they would stop her from becoming ill ( broccoli is full of antioxidants1 and eating it makes her grow stronger, because it helps her bones stay strong).2
- Use peas to make patterns on your plate, or roll them down ‘ramps’ of carrot into dips! They look like little ‘eyes,’ which is why they help you see better (peas contain lutein, an important eye nutrient).3
- Sliced beetroot can ‘magically’ colour everything on the plate. This magic paint is what makes you able to run faster (beetroot improves exercise performance).4 Be careful not to stain clothes, as it doesn’t easily wash out.
- Kale can be made into ‘crisps’ see our crispy kale recipe here.
- Carrots can be made into healthy flourless carrot muffins.
3. make it beautiful
Children are attracted to bright colours and eating a rainbow of natural foods is the best way for both adults and children to ensure a good balance of vegetables and nutrients. When you’re shopping, have them find the rainbow of colours in the veggie aisle and make them a colour chart, where they can tick off the colours they have eaten. When they complete the rainbow, let them have a treat as a reward (not sweets or chocolate, ideally)! See if they can make every meal as colourful as possible with natural foods.
Have fun with your children by downloading and completing our kids rainbow challenge to remind you (and them) just how many different plant foods there are! Encourage them to try new fruit and vegetables.
4. use kid-friendly ideas
Dips. We all love dips! Making pots of dip with vegetable sticks can be tasty and fun.
- Make your own mayonnaise (or buy organic), which is less processed and low in sugar.
- Use hummous or baba ganoush (made of aubergine), which many children naturally love.
- Make our cream cheese dip (½ a pack of soft cheese, mixed with 2 tbsp mayonnaise, ½ tsp vinegar and a little lemon juice) then mix in any herbs they like, dried mixed herbs, a little curry powder or garlic salt to flavour it. Or, just enjoy it plain.
- Make a raita with greek yoghurt, diced cucumber and fresh coriander leaves.
Kebabs are a great way to make children enjoy eating vegetables. The classic red onion or peppers on a kebab stick are far more appealing to children than some vegetables on a plate. Courgettes, aubergine, butternut squash, mushrooms or green beans all make great ‘rainbow kebabs’. They can be sandwiched in between chunks of sausage or chicken, if they still take a little persuading. It always amazes me that children won’t eat the vegetables on their plate, but will happily eat them from a kebab skewer (especially if they help to make them or pick out the vegetables).
Veggie burgers. A brilliant way to make vegetables a lot more tasty for kids is to turn them into burgers. Almost any vegetable can be hidden in these!
Add butter or olive oil. We all know that butter tastes great, but it’s also pretty good for you. Grass-fed, organic butter is best. Adding a dollop of butter to vegetables drastically improves the taste for kids and the added fat stops vegetables from tasting bitter (which is why salads taste better with olive oil). If they like eating them this way, you can try using flavoured butter, like garlic butter or Cajun butter (with a little added Cajun spice powder).
- Make flavoured butter by blending butter with wild garlic, garlic, basil, parsley, lemon, shallots, sun-dried tomatoes, blue cheese, dried spices like Cajun or curry powders or even parmesan or wasabi, to give exciting new flavours. Children can surprise you with the tastes that they like and they often forget about the vegetables, when they are excited to try the flavoured butter.
Make alien or monster soups. No matter what rainbow of vegetables you begin with, soup often blends down into brown, green or orange when it’s been pureéd. In our house, we call these monster and alien soups, and put cheese or butter ‘eyes’ in them and draw mouths with balsamic vinegar or a little soy sauce. A multitude of vegetables can hide in a soup, and without the texture of the vegetables and a little added cream or parmesan cheese to soften the flavour, many children will eat them.
5. grow your own veg!
The best way to get kids fully engaged with the world of vegetables is to grow them yourself. It isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Growing peas is easy and quick, and you only need a pot and stakes to twist the pea shoots around (it’s also a good idea to stick copper tape around your pot, to stop slugs from eating them). A few weeks later you will often have your first pea pods. Even at six months old, my son loved eating his first sweet and juicy peas. Why not create or join a gardening group in The Natural Doctors to share hints and tips and post photos of what you are growing!
All vegetables taste better when they are home-grown. Tomatoes, carrots, salad leaves, courgettes, kale, broccoli and sweetcorn (we love baby corn) are also incredibly easy to grow and are very exciting for kids, when they are involved in the process of caring for them and watering them and checking to see how they are growing.
Courgette flowers are delicious stuffed with cream cheese and fried in a parmesan crust, and collecting and cooking them with your children is a lot of fun. Salad leaves and rocket grow in tiny trays that will fit any windowsill and we tend to also get our kids to eat edible flowers like nasturtiums and cornflowers, which always amaze our children and their friends with their bright colours and peppery taste.
There is little that equals the delight that children get from growing their own food and this usually guarantees a lifelong love of natural food.
If you have other sure-fire ways to get your kids to eat their vegetables, join the conversation and share your tips with our community!
q&a dr jess
I have tried everything and my child still refuses to eat any veg. When is it time to seek expert help?
For the first few years of life, although ideally, we would like our children to eat vegetables, some children still refuse. Make sure they are eating a good range of meats, eggs and healthy fats which will also provide vitamins and minerals. We would encourage a good children’s multivitamin like Animal Parade or, if they are aged four or over, our favourite is Klaire Labs Chewable.
Kids will often grow out of fussy eating with time. As they grow older, engage them with a reward chart system. It may be that your child is a supertaster (which is genetic, so a parent will likely be too). Supertasters have a gene that makes them more sensitive to bitter tastes. These people are shown to be likely to eat fewer vegetables (Jess and Xandra are both supertasters, as is Amelia, Jess’s daughter).
Fat like butter or olive oil disguises the bitter taste of vegetables or salad leaves, so can change a child’s perception. If you are still concerned, discuss with your medical provider, who can check whether your child is getting adequate nutrition. Consider seeing a functional medicine practitioner or health coach who can help you implement a healthy diet for your child.
- James D, Devaraj S, Bellur P, Lakkanna S, Vicini J, Boddupalli S.Novel concepts of broccoli sulforaphanes and disease: induction of phase II antioxidant and detoxification enzymes by enhanced-glucoraphanin broccoli . Nutr Rev. 2012 Nov;70(11):654-65. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2012.00532.x. Epub 2012 Oct 12. PMID: 23110644.
- HEALTH | Broccoli ‘keeps bones healthy’
- Top 10 Foods Highest in Lutein and Zeaxanthin
- Hoon MW, Johnson NA, Chapman PG, Burke LM. The effect of nitrate supplementation on exercise performance in healthy individuals: a systematic review and meta-analysis Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2013 Oct;23(5):522-32. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.23.5.522. Epub 2013 Apr 9. PMID: 23580439.