When I talk to parents, one of the biggest challenges they face is getting veggies into their kids. In this post, we’re digging into realistic ways for parents to raise children to have a healthy relationship with vegetables. It starts with understanding development at each stage and developing effective strategies.
But before we get into tips for each stage of development, we need to discuss the reality of the situation to help manage expectations.
Understand the Trajectory of Food Preferences
In my picky eating and managing sweets series, I discuss the unique tastes of young children. But I wanted to approach this subject from a lifecycle perspective. I found a 2000 review article published in the Proceedings of Nutrition Society that provides a great overview.
Relative to adults, children show an exaggerated avoidance response to bitter tastes (vegetables) and an elevated liking of intensely-sweet foods”… “Preferences for sweet taste and sugar consumption drops sharply between childhood and adolescence…”Once development and growth are completed, taste preferences and food-related attitudes undergo a profound change. Adults dislike intensely sweet foods and show a much higher tolerance for bitter tastes.
But if this were true, why don’t more adolescents and adults devour vegetables? I believe part of it has to do with the tendency for parents to fight this natural biology, instead of using it their advantage. Let me show you what I mean.
Babies and Young Toddlers
The largest growth spurt occurs the first two years of life. The combination of hearty appetite and low mental awareness means many babies are open to a variety of foods. They still prefer sweet to bitter-tasting veggies, but will generally eat almost anything, even after making a funny face the first time they try it.
The biggest mistake parents make is not optimizing variety. Babies are often kept on bland puree food too long instead of transitioning to table foods before the first birthday. And even when babies move to table food, they may still be served bland vegetables even though they will accept more spiced up and tasty fare.
Tip! Get family meals rolling during infancy and serve your child many of the veggies you like to eat as long as they are made into a consistency that is safe to eat. Instead of plain steamed veggies, try roasting, sautéing, stir fry veggies and blanched thinly sliced veggies with various dips.
The two-year growth spurt comes to a close during the toddler years and appetite naturally wanes while cognition grows. Food neophobia (fear of new foods), begins and many children shy away from the veggies they once loved. Introducing a variety of food early helps but doesn’t always prevent “not wanting anything green.”
Common mistakes during this stage are making an issue of veggies by forcing, using dessert as a reward, still giving puree food, pressuring or overselling veggies’ superior health benefits — leaving a potentially lasting negative impression.
Tip! Stay neutral when presenting vegetables and whether or not children eat them. When it comes to preparation, look beyond the side of veggies on a plate by trying different preparation methods that are pleasing to young children. Have them help you make zucchini and carrot muffins or breads, their favorite smoothie with leafy greens thrown in and mixing the veggies in oil before roasting them, which naturally brings out its sweetness.
And raw veggies with dips works well according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Preschoolers ate 80% more broccoli over 7 weeks when they were offered ranch dressing as a dip. For what to do when veggie intake is low, see this post.
“Never give up. When my son Josh was a toddler, he loved eating diced ripe avocado. Now, as a 17-year old, he wouldn’t eat it if you paid him (though he loves guacamole),” said Liz Weiss, MS, RD, coauthor of No Whine with Dinner: 150 Healthy, Kid-Tested Recipes from the Meal Makeover Moms. “I share this story because kids’ taste buds change. There are lots of vegetable choices out there, so experiment and try new ones each week, and shake up the way you prepare them (steamed, sautéed, roasted, grilled, raw/fresh with a dip).”
In the early school-age years growth is still stable, but once puberty hits, the second largest growth spurt second to infancy, kids are hungry. Taste buds also open up and that food neophobia lessens, leaving kids in the perfect place to accept more veggies.
Common mistakes at this stage are letting over-crowded schedules get in the way of family meals, no longer offering veggies, and not stepping up the cooking. At this stage, children can start advancing their cooking skills and teens are ready to go wild in the kitchen.
Tip! “At school age, teach kids to chop, dice and stir fry veggies (back door into exposure), and have fun experimenting with “gross” smoothies—let them come up with concoctions that include veggies,” said childhood feeding expert Jill Castle. “Step up the science-project aspect of cooking and putting together foods so they aren’t pressured to eat, but can have fun with food.”
When it comes to the teen, Castle explained how parents can take advantage of health-consciousness at this stage.
“Focus on different salads and dressings they can make themselves, especially with added fruits or exotic veggies they’ve never tried,” she said. “Get them to incorporate veggies into baked goods (teens love to bake)—and even smoothies or juicing. Open their minds to new concepts about food—beans and what you can do with them (especially dips like hummus); cooking techniques that incorporate veggies (steaming, sauté, roasting)”
And don’t forget to take advantage of that intense hunger. “I have two teenage boys. Josh is 17 and Simon are almost 14. They eat A LOT of food and are constantly hungry,” said Weiss. “That works to my advantage since they eat pretty much anything and everything I place in front of them. Snack time is the ideal time to bring on the veggies.”
Having a big picture view of how children accept veggies through the years, can really help keep things perspective. And even when mistakes have been made, it’s never too late to turn things around.
What stage are your children at? How is it going? Any challenges or successes?
Got a picky eater? Get the latest research-based strategies and tips in Maryann’s book: From Picky to Powerful: The Mindset, Strategies, and Know-How You Need to Empower Your Picky Eater