It can be so frustrating when your child refuses to eat certain foods because ‘it’s yuk’. Dare I mention broccoli?
To be honest, many adults don’t like foods like broccoli either, but we’ve learned to eat it anyway.
To get your kids to eat their veggies without you having to nag, cajole, or bargain, you need to first understand why they might not want to eat certain foods.
Why kids don’t like certain foods
For children, eating food they don’t like anyway is not so easy. There are 2 reasons why children have a stronger dislike of foods:
- Their digestive system is still developing and may not be able to process the food effectively yet. For example, kids under 9 or 10 years old don’t have the enzymes yet that are needed to digest pulses, like kidney beans etc. Which means eating beans gives them stomach aches and they will associate meals with beans with discomfort and therefore not like them.
- Their tastebuds haven’t been ‘trained’ fully. Tastebuds are really the ends of nerves that send taste messages to the brain. In children those tastebuds are still dialled up too much; it’s like the tastes are screaming. Over time, the taste signals to the brain will dial down and become less extreme and less ‘yuk’.
Trust that their tastes will change over time. In the meantime, you need practical strategies that get more vegetables into them.
1. Start with what they will eat
My first strategy is to spend some time focusing on what they DO eat. When you worry about their health, it’s easy to lose sight of the healthy vegetables that they will quite happily eat.
Make a list of all the vegetables that your child would happily eat, without you having to say anything. Even if there is only one vegetable on this list!
Every vegetable contains a wide range of nutrients. Even the humble cucumber contains vitamin A, C, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron, plus a good amount of water and some essential phytonutrients. So if your child only eats cucumber, you know they will get some key nutrients.
With every meal, give them the vegetables they like to eat. Don’t worry about giving them vegetables they don’t eat – for now. Start by making mealtimes more relaxed and enjoyable for both you and your child.
2. How to introduce the ‘yuk’ vegetables
If you’ve been sticking to my previous strategy – only giving your child vegetables they like – you might be getting a little worried about all those other vegetables. And it is important to introduce your child to them.
Remember though that their tastebuds are hypersensitive, and their digestive system is not as developed as yours.
I have 2 tactics for introducing new vegetables:
- Work out if there is a difference between the cooked and the raw version. My daughter hates cooked carrot but will happily much all day on raw carrots. So, I simply don’t give her cooked carrot (unless it’s hidden – but more on that later).
- Apply the ‘one small bite’ rule. Let’s take broccoli as an example. Every few days or so, add broccoli to the meal. But give your child only a small piece. The rule is that they have to take a small bite and swallow it. If they still don’t like it, say that their tastebuds haven’t grown up yet, and just leave it. Then try again a few days later. Now a bit of warning: be prepared for it to take months before your child may start to eat a little bit of broccoli. But you will be able to prepare your child for a time when they will be fine with that particular vegetable and notice the change when it happens.
3. Hide the vegetables
One of my key aims is to have relaxed meal times. It’s often the only time of when my daughter and I spend some relaxed time together where we can talk. So, I don’t want to have to be half-focused on whether she’s eating her dinner, and nag her to eat the things she doesn’t like.
My main strategy is to make dishes that I know will be eaten without any problem and find ways to hide more vegetables in them. A great dish for this is Bolognese! Another favourite in my house is shepherd’s pie. Stews and curries also give you a great opportunity to add vegetables.
Be careful how you go about this though! Slowly does it because you don’t want to make it taste any different.
Perhaps start by adding some grated zucchini, or cauliflower to your dish, and not more than around 10 grams per person. Then over time, if nobody noticed anything, increase the amount, and add some other vegetables like baby spinach, sweet potato, anything from the cabbage family, etc.
4. Give vegetables as snacks.
Kids often don’t see eating snacks as ‘proper’ eating, It’s more of a fun, enjoyable thing. So it makes sense then to make the most of their happiness to snack by including vegetables.
You can look at raw vegetables to snack on: carrot, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, capsicum, celery. Some kids may even like raw cauliflower, even if they don’t like it cooked.
You can also look for muffin recipes that contain added vegetables.
Or give them vegetable dips: mashed avocado; hummus; pumpkin hummus; beetroot hummus; cauliflower hummus; mashed peas; carrot. If you have a blender, making dips is so easy. Give the dip with some raw vegetable sticks (now that’s a vegetable hit!) or some whole grain crackers or toasted wholegrain bread rectangles.
5. The importance of role models.
One of my friends has twin girls. During one of our chats about our kids talked about how she was getting very frustrated with them not eating vegetables. She’d tried nagging, promising nice desserts, ignoring, praising every little bit of vegetable they did eat, but nothing really worked.
The problem was that my friend’s husband didn’t eat vegetables, except for the odd tomato, a piece of cucumber and potatoes.
The girls were simply taking their cue from dad: why would they eat their vegetables when he didn’t?
Eating healthy and a good variety of vegetables is an ‘all family’ endeavour. As soon as one person at the table is allowed to ‘get away’ with not eating vegetables, it will be very difficult to get your kids to eat them. So perhaps you may need to work on someone else before you work on the kids?
A final note of reassurance
Your kids will learn to eat vegetables if you take a stress-free and long-term approach. Set the expectation that they will eat more vegetables at some point in the future and keep introducing them.
What’s your fussy eater not eating? Tell us in the comments below.