Okay - the title of this post is a bit misleading, because I’m going to tell you that the way to get kids eating their veggies is to… not try to get them to eat their veggies. Confused? Hang on in there.
As parents, we are really committed to making sure that our children eat a good diet. For most people, this means food cooked from scratch, great quality ingredients and of course, plenty of fresh veg. When you are preparing healthy food but your child isn’t eating it, the logical question to ask is: “How can I get my child to eat their veggies”? For many people, this is their number one aim in relation to their child’s eating. I’m going to explain why I think this is the wrong goal. Or at least, the wrong place to start.
It’s asking too much
Many very picky eaters have a diet that is limited to a narrow range of items, often sharing similar characteristics, like crunchy, dry and beige foods. A child’s accepted foods (which feeding professionals refer to as their ‘safe foods’) are often uniform - two pieces of pasta are always going to be the same - and they are predictable.
Vegetables are not, on the whole, predictable. Pieces of carrot may be different shapes. Some may be firmer than others - there may be colour variation. This is really hard for picky eaters! Encouraging a child who eats a limited range of predictable foods to try some broccoli, is quite simply aiming too high. You can read more about making food goals realistic and achievable, here.
The problem with unrealistic goals, is that they can result in accidental pressure. If your child is really anxious about eating vegetables and you encourage them to do so, this can raise anxiety and make eating worse. You need to help your child learn to accept new foods from within their comfort zone. They eat salted crisps ? (US: potato chips) Offer them different brands, shapes and flavours. This is a small jump from a safe food, whereas a vegetable is a massive leap.
Run before you can walk
Once children are beginning to feel comfortable with small changes to their safe foods, then you can begin to branch out towards more challenging options. The book Food Chaining sets out a way of doing this.
Look to the long term
Of course, there are some things you can do which will help your child learn to like vegetables - what I’m really trying to say is that is should be a long term, rather than a short term goal. The way to help your child learn to eat veg is not to try to persuade them to eat veg!
Here are my top three tips:
Use family style serving (if this is new to you, you can download my guide) With this approach, your child will get valuable exposures to vegetables without being pressured to eat them and without forming any new negative associations.
Read your child story books featuring pictures of vegetables (yes - research tells us that this can help!) again, to increase familiarity in a pressure-free way.
Engage your child with vegetables away from the table. This could be through art projects, cooking together, shopping or even growing your own.
You might also find this guest post by Australian feeding specialist, Simone Emery (on the Sneaky Veg blog), helpful. Simone talks about just how tricky vegetables can be, from a sensory perspective.
So if your child is not a fan of the green stuff, try to relax and work on getting meals pressure-free, calm and positive. Expand gently and slowly on what your child does like, and remember that improving children’s relationship with food is a long haul journey not a sprint.