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Getting Kids to Eat Their Vegetables: Easier Said Than Done

My husband and I love to eat healthy, fresh, organic fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for our kids. My girls, now pushing those dreaded teenage years, are finally starting to expand their palates to include salads, snap peas and hummus. However, they were absolute terrors when they were younger. As toddlers, their favorite food groups were grease and sugar - and heaven help you if you tried to get them to eat anything else.  We could get them to gnaw on carrots and broccoli, but if we tried to make them choke down even a brussel sprout we were in for a miserable evening.

I worry a little that my lenience about vegetables during their formative years has turned them into picky eaters. Now that I'm expecting again (better late than never, right?), I don't want that to be the case for our new baby. So I decided to go online and start looking for tips on how to get your kids to eat the vegetables that their bodies - and palates - need. I found all sorts of advice about how and when to start your kids on healthy food - and even some tips on how to get my teenagers to change their ways. But I want to know what you guys think. If your kids were finicky eaters, how did you get them to eat their veggies?

To kick start the conversation, here are a few tricks I researched that I think might be helpful:

"Switch In" Healthy Foods. The gist of this trick is that you're supposed to replace dietary staples like spaghetti and sausage with healthier alternatives like spaghetti squash and tofu links. I can see how it would be effective, but is tricking your kids really going to open them up to vegetables in their diet? I worry that after discovering they've been hoodwinked into eating something healthy, kids will feel betrayed and further distance themselves from vegetables.

Take Them Shopping. I like this idea. If your young children get the chance to create their own salad or meal out of whatever catches their eye in a grocery store, they'll probably be more willing to try new things. Granted, a combo of asparagus and strawberries might make for an interesting dinner, but if it gets them to eat new things then I'm all for it.I definitely want to see what the baby can come up with once he's about three and his stomach can handle the experiment.

Nickname the Food. My sister insists that the only reason her kids love broccoli and cauliflower is because she told them they were tiny trees when they were younger. They played this dinner game called "Lumberjack" where she would load the plate with broccoli and cauliflower and tell her kids that it was a forest. They had to try and "chop down all the trees" and if they did they would grow up to be big and strong like Paul Bunyan. Sometimes I think parents of boys have it easy....

Blend It Up. I don't necessarily agree with sneaking vegetables into a kid's diet, but if you can mix in some veggies with their approval then why not? I remember my girls actually liked it when I blended up a carrot as part of a fruit smoothie or added refried beans to their quesadillas. If anything, my biggest fault was that I didn't experiment enough to see what new foods I could get them to try.

So these are a few of the tricks I've got lined up now. What do you guys think? How did you get your kids to eat healthy when they were young?

Views: 116

Comment by Alison Gillespie on February 20, 2013 at 11:57am

When it comes to fruits and veggies don't ask what they want.  Just offer it silently.  

This sounds funny, but someone else told me this and it works.  Don't ask your kids:  do you want a carrot?  Just put a plate of carrots on the table in front of them at snack time (with or without other foods).  Or, start eating them your self from a shared main plate on the table.  It is amazing, but I find that if I ask them they say no but if I just put out the plate they finish all of it.  

Also, grow it with them.  I find that if I let my kids say what we are going to grow, they are very excited to eat the food.  My daughter, for example, never wants to eat salad at dinner.  But when she and I grow some mesclun in the garden she gets very excited about it and I find her sneaking into the garden to sample it!  I have also caught her bragging to friends about growing it!  I let her pick the  seed packets... and also ask her to help me prepare the beds and put down the seeds.  I try to make sure she knows how much I value her help in the garden.  I try to give her real stuff to do -- not just made up stuff but the real garden chores.  She likes that.  

I'm the gardener but my husband the cook says the same rules apply in the kitchen.  If he lets them make choices about the food to be cooked and asks for their help and then really teaches them the hard stuff in the kitchen they love to eat what is cooked, even if it is something they never wanted to try before.

Finally, do not make a big deal about eating.  Keep meals focused on laughter, conversation and fun.  Tables should not be battle zones.  

That's what has worked for us.

Comment by Jennifer on February 20, 2013 at 1:40pm

Congrats, Lucy!!! What fantastic news! I just made this today's Daily Bite up at the top of the homepage and Tweeted & Facebooked it, so fingers crossed we'll get some folks weighing in. And thanks, Alison, for the thoughtful advice! Any chance I can borrow your kid for some weeding? (Kidding, kidding.) Getting kids involved in creatively choosing and growing and cooking their own food—and remembering that all of those things are FUN—is a very HOMEGROWN philosophy. Love it!

Comment by Lucy Clark on February 21, 2013 at 10:57am

Thanks Jennifer!

Allison - your silent offer idea sounds interesting! I'll have to give it a try. Also, growing your food with your kids sounds like a great idea. Thanks for the advice!

Comment by Alison Gillespie on February 21, 2013 at 11:20am

Oh, hey, I thought other things  that have worked for us.

Be sure to model the food habits you want them to practice.  Be sure to try lots of exotic foods yourself in front of them, and don't be a fussy eater (at least don't be one in front of them -- keep your food weirdness to yourself at least until your kids get older).  Make food sound like fun and try new things and talk about things you think are yummy and healthy.  Don't talk about your own food hang ups -- they will think that is the adult way to be about food.  Instead, talk about the fun of trying something you have never ever eaten.

Take them to exotic food restaurants when they are very young.  Don't be afraid of eating things like Indian food or Mexican food with them as toddlers.  You can carry a piece of fruit or some crackers into the restaurant and let them sample the other new foods.  They will think this is normal food if you eat it with them when they are young and they won't think frozen chicken fingers are what you should eat at a restaurant.

Penelope Leach actually helped me the most when my kids where toddlers.  She wrote this thing in one of her books about thinking about food /nutrition on weekly basis instead of a daily or meal basis.  So like, instead of thinking:  "hey, they didn't eat a vegetable at dinner and now they will perish!" force yourself to remember: "hey, they ate a whole ton of green veggies on Monday, a lot of fruit on Tuesday.  So today if all they eat is some turkey that is okay."  This made me relax when it came to meals and eating healthy, and kept me from turning into the food police.  If you have to keep a food journal in order to not worry when they are teeny tiny you can do so.  There are still times when my 11 year old will eat nothing but fruit and yogurt for dinner -- and that is okay because I know he had other stuff that balances it out the rest of the day and the rest of the week. As long as you don't keep sugary snacks and treats in the house and you make sure they aren't just filling up on junk food at snack time or whatever, this works.

(Can you tell this is a subject I am passionate about???? My husband is a gourmet cook and when we were expecting our first child I kept saying:  I will NOT be forced to eat boring food just because we have kids!  Eleven years later it is so far, so good. We have raised two kids who love to eat healthy and love to cook.)

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