Whether you have an adventurous eater or a picky one, it is a parenting truth that we all grapple with how to get kids to eat more vegetables. Because it’s not always a matter of teaching them to like broccoli — even if you manage that, they may suddenly decide that broccoli is poison and, just like that, it feels like all of your hard work goes down the drain.
Well, fret not, because it hasn’t. If you can get your kids to like — or at least accept — a veggie at some point, they will come back it at some other point (perhaps at a much later date, but still). But the key to riding through veggie refusnik stages and picky eating in general is encouraging kids to be open to a wide variety of veggies so that there’s always a few that are acceptable. Here are a few tips for how you can do that.
1. Serve a variety of vegetables — but keep servings small.
It’s easy to fall into a rut with our own vegetable intake, never mind that of our picky kids too. If we want them to be open to a wide variety of foods, though, we need to serve a wide variety of foods. And when getting kids to accept a new vegetable can take up to 15 exposures (more on that in a minute), it helps to keep changing things up. Kale one night, lettuce another, then green beans, sweet potatoes followed by parsnips, and so on.
And, yes, this means that you have to eat a wide variety of vegetables too (more on that below too).
Veggie haters are not likely to be happy with this high-variety approach. Control and sticking what you’re used to are the primary hallmarks of picky eating. To deal with their discontent, alternate your kids “safe” veggies with unfamiliar ones that may (literally) feel threatening to them. Also, serve new vegetables and the ones they don’t like in smaller portions. You have to take the long view here and getting tons of veg down the gullet tonight is less important than making sure they are exposed over the long haul.
2. Keep at it.
This is the least popular piece of advice I ever give, because frankly, it’s annoying — not to mention expensive — to serve a child a vegetable that you know she doesn’t like upwards of 15 times in the hope that she’ll finally accept it. But that is what it may take. Persistence is hands-down the most effective strategy for getting kids to eat veggies.
Studies across the globe have shown that despite what caregivers self report, most give up serving foods that kids say they don’t like after only 3-5 tries. Also, when feeding younger children and toddlers, caregivers tend to jump to conclusions about whether or not a child likes a food. While she may not be totally convinced — or maybe she just had a bad day and doesn’t feel like eating carrots — it doesn’t mean that she will not accept the same food in a future feeding. You have to give it to her again to know for sure.
The key to being persistent without driving yourself mad is to refrain from fighting with your child over what’s on the plate. Keeping calm doesn’t take much more than fair acknowledgement — yes, we’re eating kale again and I know you don’t like it — and having a clear sense of your food rules that have been communicated to the child.
Do they have to take just one bite or give it a lick? Do they get dessert or some other non-food reward if they eat their veggies or try something new? Do crying children have to leave the table? Having worked closely with many families with picky eaters, I don’t believe there is one magical set of rules. Decide on what rules are best for your family, set them clearly, then calmly execute them at the table, and call it a night. It’s just like effective parenting in any other domain. Veggie fight averted, and you can try Brussels Sprouts again — for the 12th time — some other night.
3. Switch up how you serve vegetables.
Up to this point, it probably feels like getting kids to eat veggies is more of a mind game than a kitchen task — because it is — but how you serve vegetables matters too. First off, vegetables need to taste good. Seriously. It may sound like a no-brainer, but having cooked alongside many struggling families, I can tell you that veggies are often an afterthought, with the most energy and planning going into the protein-main. If you’re stuck for great veggie recipes, consider picking up one or two of our favorite vegetarian cookbooks for inspiration.
Also, think about what your child likes most and find ways to incorporate veggies instead of always serving them stand-alone on the side (which can feel daunting to kids). I love Jane’s trick for getting her kids to eat spinach. And my kids have an affinity for raw veggies, so I find ways to incorporate them into our main, like with this Cold Soba Salad (pictured), which pairs raw peppers, cucumbers, and carrots with noodles and my kids’ favorite dressing.
Another favorite in my house are stir fries with flavorful sauces that my kids say “hide” the vegetable flavors (fine with me!). These make-ahead stir-fry freezer packs help make sure that there’s always a veggie rich meal raring to go. Beet hummus is another favorite; if your kids love hummus, you can blend anything from roasted carrots to roasted tomatoes to steamed edamame into your basic recipe.
Changing the way that you serve veggies can also be as simple as cutting vegetables in creative ways, serving them in smoothies, or introducing your kids to veggie-packed juices. Of course, the goal is to eventually get them to love eating a veggie-packed salad, but in the meantime, it’s powerful to show them how versatile and delicious veggies can be in all forms.
4. Get them — and their friends — involved.
You’ve probably heard that children are more likely to try a new food if they’ve helped cook it, but did you know that it also helps to expose kids to vegetables even earlier in the process, before there’s any pressure around having to eat what’s being picked and handled? Bringing kids to the farmer’s market or supermarket, going vegetable picking with them, and having them help grow herbs and veggies goes a long way to helping them get used to new vegetables. And getting over that unfamiliarity is half the battle, especially when you can build in exposure away from the stress of mealtime.
And it’s not just your own kids who you want to involve; it can also help to get their more adventurous friends over to model healthy eating. What can I say, peer pressure, even when it’s implicit, works. Or at least proves that avocado isn’t lethal. If you surreptitiously employ a friend’s good eating habits, just be sure to keep quiet about it. There’s no shame in anyone’s game and comparisons will just make your more selective eater feel bad. Let the friend’s healthy eating speak for itself.
5. Model good veggie behavior.
If you’re in the throes of dealing with a picky eater, this suggestion may seem like a throw away, but in all seriousness: What you eat matters. We’re taking the long view here, because, well, we have to — no force feeding allowed. What your child observes you eating has an impact on their own habits, especially if you’re trying in other ways to tell them that veggies can be delicious.
That said, keep in mind that your kid may not like something just because you do. We’re all different, and you’re modeling an attitude not a specific love of kale. We really don’t all have to love kale, thank you very much.