Put your hand up if you struggle to get your kids to eat a variety of vegetables. (Yes I do).
It can be hard work having a fussy eater in the house and getting them to eat vegetables can be the hardest part. These are very often the foods that most children struggle with because of their bitterness, mouth feel, taste or visual appeal.
However we know the importance of vegetables in the diet for our children and often we can put pressure on them in various ways to get them to eat some or any vegetables. In this blog I will share with you 19 ways to increase vegetables in your fussy eaters diet whether this is through exposure or meal ideas.
What is a fussy eater?
A fussy eater is unwilling to try new foods. They often have strong food preferences for a particular colour or texture of food and their diet is very limited in the number and variety of foods (1).
They can also display what is called ‘neophobia’ which is fear of new (1). If you’re not sure if your child is a fussy eater and wonder if there is something more extreme you might like to check out my resource.
Why are vegetables so hard to like?
Its a hard transition for babies to make from having only sweetened breastmilk or formula to starting on solid foods. Babies are born with mature sweet taste buds so milk is very satisfying for them. When they reach ‘weaning’ or the introduction of solid foods your baby has to get used to a whole new range of tastes that are not just sweet but bitter, salty & sour.
It is well known that we have evolved with a gene that makes toxins in plants taste bitter and this is a way of protecting us from anything poisonous and therefore being more reluctant to eat these bitter foods.
Babies’ bitter and sour taste buds are still immature at 6 mths and they have to learn these bitter tastes which makes it harder on us parents when vegetables are generally bitter, particularly green ones!. It therefore takes longer for kids to accept vegetables because it takes a lot more attempts to try vegetables compared to sweeter foods.
Also if sweeter foods are around such as their desire for these is often greater than other foods.
Why are vegetables so important?
Vegetables are one of the five food groups that we need to be eating everyday and we should be aiming to have at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. (2) This is challenging for most children but even harder to get into a fussy eaters diet.
There is a myth that vegetables are best to be eaten fresh. You can introduce vegetables in different forms i.e frozen, canned, juiced & dried as well as fresh but variety is key. If you introduce lots of colours (think rainbows) they are more likely to be getting a range of vitamins and minerals as well as fibre and phytonutrients.
What vegetables are good for fussy eaters?
Depending on what age your kids are will depend on what vegetables are best to start trying first. If they are just starting out weaning then bitter ones are best to introduce first as these are usually harder to accept with their bitterness and then introduce the sweeter ones.
- Bitter vegetables are the ones that are usually green or dark green and include leafy type vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, courgettes, kale, aubergine, green beans, cucumber, asparagus.
What ways can I get my fussy eater exposed to vegetables?
Before you can get your fussy eater to actually eat new vegetables you may have to think about other ways that are outside mealtimes to increase exposure to vegetables and help them to take the first steps. The more familiar they are, the more likely they will be more comfortable with them and try them.
There are 11 ways here to increase their exposure.
- Growing and picking vegetables – whether this is in your garden, inside on a windowsill or at an allotment. Any opportunity to do this will be an exposure to a new vegetable or salad and you can then use this in your cooking. Research shows children are more likely to try vegetables they have grown and picked themselves than ones not homegrown. (3)
- Shopping for vegetables – let them pick out one new vegetable when you go shopping or let them take the vegetables from the shelf. This is the first step in touching and maybe smelling the vegetable.
- Messy play with vegetables using different senses – you can play all sorts of games which involve smelling, touching, listening to snapping or chopping vegetables.
- Reading and talking about vegetables – There are some lovely vegetable books. I particularly like these dual purpose books that you can read and then grow afterwards. See willsow
- Role play – eating together and showing that you enjoy eating vegetables will allow your child to see this food is tasty and are more likely to try it. You might like to check out this blog on supporting fussy eaters.
- Getting kids to help in the kitchen – by preparing vegetables if they are old enough or simply washing vegetables they are getting a chance to be exposed.
- Letting them help themselves at mealtimes to how much they can manage if any as this gives some control on choice i.e whether they want to try it or not. Also if the food is on the table they can see it (which is exposure).
- Try a learning plate which is simply a separate plate to their meal. For some children having on the same plate as the meal is too much to begin with so by getting them used to it nearby is a first step.
- Offer a familiar food alongside a new vegetable – this will ensure they have something they like and often an accompaniment to the vegetable makes it a lot tastier. For example a sauce or grated cheese with vegetables can help.
- Provide vegetables with every meal. As simply as it sounds it is just another exposure and step towards trying a vegetable.
- Make them look appealing – by using lots of coloured vegetables that are not cooked too long so they keep their brightness. No one likes the look of overcooked soggy grey veg!
What meal ideas are good that include vegetables?
There are so many ways to increase vegetables to your fussy eaters diet. If you find they don’t like one particular vegetable cooked you could try them raw. It is worth experimenting with different methods of cooking too as we often find kids will say I don’t like this cooked but I like them raw.
Just one note about sneaking in vegetables. If you’re feeling desperate to get your kids to eat more vegetables it’s easy to want to sneak in some vegetables they can’t see. Just a word of caution. It may work for some kids and they are happy to have them but I advise you to tell them as they could lose trust in what you give them and make them more sceptical at trying new foods.
Here are some ways to include vegetables into meals or snacks throughout the day.
1. Soups are a great way to include more than one vegetable which makes it easier to reach 5 a day. You can make them tastier with the addition of a little creme fraiche, cheese or croutons.
2. Raw vegetables are often preferred over cooked in some cases. My kids prefer raw carrots, tomatoes, peas, peppers, cucumber because of the crunchy texture and these are easy snack or meal additions.
3. Smoothies don’t have to just be fruits. You can make smoothies with a combination of fruits and vegetables. Adding vegetables that don’t need to be cooked like avocado or spinach add another texture and flavour.
4. Salads start with a salad or side dish to ensure they get their vegetables in first. Crunchy lettuce ones go down well in our house with the addition of seeds and nuts. There is some further inspiration here
5. vegetable starters are a good way to get the vegetables in first before they fill themselves with the main. This could be as simple as a dip and vegetable sticks, tomato and mozzarella salad or my pesto courgette fingers.
6. Vegetable sauces are a firm favourite in our house. Tomato based and green based like peas or vegetable pesto work well. I think the combination of cheese in the sauce or sprinkled on top of the pasta makes this meal irresistible for kids.
7. Vegetable snacks like my veggie dippers are worth trying with courgettes and other vegetables as the coating is crispy and it can make it more appealing.
8. Vegetable bakes are not something I recommend often because of the other ingredients like sugar and butter. However if you want to introduce them another way after vegetables have been tried on their own and you want to get them used to a particular vegetable then bakes like carrot cakes, courgette cake and beetroot brownies are real delights.
References available on request