How to get kids to eat vegetables when they don’t seem interested

If we want to coax kids to eat vegetables, is there a worse time than the end of the working day?

“Kids can accumulate so much fatigue and fullness by dinner time and pressuring them about what to eat can backfire,” says dietitian Jessica Beaton. As the parent of four boys aged three to ten, and co-author of the One Handed Cooks series of cookbooks for families, she knows a thing or two about feeding kids.

Jessica Beaton and her son Jude, 3, and her friend’s children Gracie, 3, and Mia, 1.Credit:Edwina Pickles

Her advice? Focus less on food and more on helping kids feel relaxed and connected at the dinner table.

“We think eating is all about food, but for kids it’s also about feeling safe and connected – and able to choose what they want from what you’ve offered,” Beaton says.

With only six per cent of two to 17-year-olds in Australia eating enough vegetables, getting kids to eat their peas is a serious issue – but a dash of fun can help. “Letting the baby paint her face with mashed pumpkin is messy, but it’s a way for small kids to explore food,” says Beaton, who recommends finding ways to make vegetables familiar and friendly without any pressure to eat them.

“You can have a contest to see who can crunch their carrots loudest at the table, or count the number of peas on the plate. Older kids might like making their own vegetable skewers – or ask them to make one for you to eat.

“For some kids, it can be a process that takes a few steps over time. For example, you could ask a small child to pass you the sweet potato and they might decide to take some and squish it – and eventually feel comfortable enough to try eating it.”

Tips like these reflect the big picture of instilling a veggie habit. It’s not about winning short-term battles over broccoli and beans, but normalising the inclusion and eating of vegetables at most meals over the long haul.

Beaton is a fan of tasting plates for kids that include familiar foods along with a new food to try, or putting dishes in the centre of the table so kids can help themselves – maybe with their own set of mini tongs. Another tip for introducing a new food: putting a small amount for them to try into a ‘learning bowl’ beside the child’s plate.

Planning meals ahead makes this easier.

“Having a plan means knowing what you’ll all have dinner and that it includes food that the kids enjoy, balanced with those they’re learning to like or that are unfamiliar,” she says.

“We can also get hyper-focused on ensuring they eat vegetables at dinner but if they’ve also eaten vegetables at morning tea and lunch, we can be more relaxed, knowing they’ve eaten well through the day.”

What about ‘hiding’ pureed or grated vegetables to dishes like Bolognese sauce or muffins? “Adding these to home-cooked meals and snacks is a great way to boost children’s vegetable intake, but being honest about what’s in the meal if they ask, or involving them in the preparation, is important to maintain the bonds of trust and security at mealtimes. It’s also a good idea to serve those ‘hidden’ vegetables in their original form alongside, so that kids are familiar with the whole vegetable,” she says.

But forget telling four-year-olds to eat carrots because they’re healthy. This won’t wash with young kids who can’t yet relate to the long-term benefits of eating vegetables. We need to work on messages that relate to children now, not in the future – like how vegetables grow or how they look, says Professor Rebecca Golley of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Flinders University in South Australia.

“It’s also important to be good role models for eating vegetables ourselves and be aware of what we say about them. Talking about bad experiences with overcooked Brussels sprouts won’t help.”

And when kids are reluctant to try a new vegetable, blame evolution not just picky eating.

“Hesitancy is part of normal development. Being cautious about what you put in your mouth could have been an advantage to hunter-gatherers. We have to support children to become familiar with vegetables by repeated exposure,” says Professor Golley, who’s involved with VegKIT, a collaboration between vegetable growers, health agencies, pre-schools, researchers and others to help boost children’s low vegetable intake.

“Often when kids refuse to eat vegetables, it gets a reaction so it’s best to stay neutral and not make a fuss – but keep on normalising the presence of vegetables on the plate,” she adds.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

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