Meals shouldn't be battles, but for many parents getting children to eat their vegetables is anything but easy. Frustrated moms and dads have tried just about everything: bribing, begging, sneaking vegetables into other foods and many other creative efforts.
Mikie Rangel, a registered dietitian at Children's Health℠, works with parents and children to establish healthy eating habits – including the often-difficult task of helping kids get all the vegetables their growing bodies need.
"Vegetables, as part of an overall well-rounded diet, support many of our bodies' systems and functions," explains Rangel. "Both fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals as well as fiber to help our digestive system. Rest assured children who prefer fruit are already getting many of the same benefits provided by vegetables. Patience and a positive environment will help open kids' minds to including vegetables in their daily intake."
How do I get my kids to eat veggies?
Children should eat anywhere from 1-3 cups of vegetables every day, depending on their age (see serving sizes by age). Get your kids excited about veggies with a few simple recommendations.
1. Be consistent
Offer vegetables with every lunch and dinner. Include fruits and vegetables as snacks, as well. Vegetables can have a starring role in a meal or just be a supporting player as a side dish.
"A parent's responsibility is to offer a variety of healthy foods, including vegetables. We can only control what we offer, children should be responsible for deciding what they are comfortable eating from the healthy choices you've provided," she says. "No one wants to be forced to eat something they don't want to eat. It's ok to encourage your children to try something new but there should be no strings attached – no dessert deals or punishment pressures."
Keep the end-goal in mind: you want your child to have a healthy interest in a variety of foods and you want to enjoy meals together. Fighting about broccoli or forcing your child to eat one bite is not pleasant for anyone, nor is that one bite going to have much of a health benefit anyway.
2. Let kids participate in choosing veggies
Involving kids in meal-time decisions can help give them a sense of control. Rangel encourages families to meal plan, go shopping together and empower children to pick out new vegetables to try.
"Giving kids a choice in how they want their vegetables served can also encourage children to try a veggie," Rangel says. "That can be as simple as asking your child if they want carrots cooked or raw."
Parents can also get kids excited about vegetables by planting a garden. Head to a local nursery, pick out seeds and map out a backyard garden or plant a few herbs and vegetables together.
3. Serve vegetables kids like
Different kids like different vegetables. Some may prefer sweet veggies like carrots, corn or bell peppers. Others may lean toward the crunchy textures of salad, cucumbers or celery.
"Roasting vegetables is a great way to brings out a caramelized flavor – season vegetables with a little salt before roasting to get a sweet and salty taste combination," Rangel suggests.
4. Make veggies fun
Dips and fun shapes are another great way to encourage your kids to try their vegetables. Offer a taste test with a variety of vegetables paired with different dips. Serve seasoned Greek yogurt, hummus or salad dressing to encourage your child to try new vegetables.
"Veggies dipped in hummus is a snack full of fiber, protein and vitamins," adds Rangel. "Hummus comes in a lot of different flavors, so you're likely to find one your child will like."
A creative presentation can also encourage kids to eat vegetables. Serve ‘ants on a log' (celery, peanut butter and raisins) or offer a fresh veggie tray with all of the colors of the rainbow – challenge your kids to help you think of a vegetable for each color. Use cookie cutters to make fun shapes for cucumber or zucchini slices. Create food art by using vegetables to create different animals or nature shapes – an adorable olive and carrot penguin could nap under a broccoli tree.
5. Try kid-friendly veggie recipes
Encourage your kids to eat more vegetables with a few kid-approved recipes. It doesn't have to be a complicated meal or snack to get kids to try something healthy. Rangel suggests a few of her favorite veggie recipes for kids:
- Add spinach to a smoothie made with fruit and milk
- Serve baked tortilla chips with salsa (packed with tomatoes, onions and peppers)
- Add finely chopped tomatoes or spinach to a cheese quesadilla
- Include some leafy lettuce in tacos or on a sandwich
- Pair vegetable sides with a favorite topping like cheese sprinkled on broccoli
- Add some shredded carrots or zucchini to spaghetti sauce or chili
Use the internet to your advantage. Most kids love watching cooking videos; search for recipes that incorporate vegetables and then cook together after you've watched the demonstration online. Kids also love to be the teacher. Challenge your kids to find out one interesting fact or health benefit about the vegetable that they can teach the rest of the family.
6. Inspire a healthy identity
We all know children do hear everything we say. If your child frequently hears you refer to them as "picky" or often hears you say, "they never eat vegetables," they will associate that as part of their identity. Instead, brag on your child's healthy habits, let them hear you mention that they are an adventurous eater and loves to try new things. Thank your child for helping you plan the menu and think of new ideas for everyone to try. Once your children consider the suggestion of trying new foods, they will be more likely to act on them.
7. Be a veggie role model
One of the best ways to encourage children to eat vegetables is to model healthy eating habits.
"Show your child the importance of a healthy diet by eating plenty of vegetables yourself," says Rangel. "That exposure, along with regular conversations about the role vegetables have in building a healthy body, lays the foundation of lifelong healthy eating habits for your entire family."
Download a free recipe e-book
Want more veggie-packed recipes? Download 10 Easy and Healthy Weeknight Suppers to receive dietitian-recommended recipes your kids will love.
Setting goals and making one healthy choice at a time can help your family on the journey to wellness. Learn more about our pediatric weight management services.
Stay current on the health insights that makes a difference to your children. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more tips sent directly to your inbox.