11 Proven Ways To Get Kids To Eat More Vegetables

by | Jun 5, 2013

Photo by woodleywonderworks

Adults can be absurdly stubborn about eating their vegetables. But when it comes to picky eating, children take the cake.

I don’t have children myself, but many people have asked me for tips to get their kids eating healthier. So for the past few months I’ve been reading the scientific literature and talking to parents around the world to uncover the secrets of getting kids to eat their greens.

The good news is it is not impossible. The bad news is that it requires consistency and persistance from the parents, and it won’t be easy. But if you’re willing to stick to your guns, you should come out triumphant in the end.

11 Proven Ways To Get Kids To Eat More Vegetables

1. Set an example

By far the best predictor of a child’s eating behavior is the eating patterns of her parents. If vegetables and healthy foods are relegated to an afterthought in your household, it’s tough to expect your kids to take to them. Kids eat what they know, and they won’t ask for a special meal if they do not know it is an option.

2. Make food fun

Kids love to play make believe. They also love games. Broccoli can be intimidating to a kid hoping for macaroni and cheese. But if he is a dinosaur who needs to eat five miniature trees in order to outrun a tyrannosaurus rex, suddenly those florets are a lot more interesting. Relating healthy food to fun things the child already loves and turning it into a game is a great way to get a few bites of greens down the hatch.

3. Get them involved

Children are more invested in a meal if they help with its preparation. Taking your kids with you to the farmers market or grocery store and letting them pick one or two things to cook for dinner can make them far more excited to eat it later. Better yet, start a garden and teach them how to plant and harvest their own. Letting them clean carrots, snap beans, mix the dressing and set the table gives them a sense of pride and makes them more enthusiastic and cooperative at meal time.

4. Enforce the “one bite rule”

Research consistently shows that children who have initially rejected a food must be exposed to it at least 8-10 times for the food to be accepted. Many parents have had success with the “one bite rule,” requiring the child to try at least one solid mouthful of a rejected food whenever it is served. After enough exposures the food will be more familiar to the child and usually they begin to rate it more favorably.

5. Don’t force them to finish

One bite is different from finishing your plate. One of the biggest misconceptions among parents is that forcing their child to eat a food she doesn’t like will get her to change her behavior. However, fighting and punishments create a negative meal experience, and the child will learn to associate food with the bad feelings. Negative food experiences have the opposite of the desired effect and actually increase picky eating tendencies. Require one bite, but try not to start a fight.

6. Reward good behavior

On the other side of the coin, creating positive food experiences can decrease picky eating tendencies. Research has shown that rewarding a child for trying one bite of a rejected food with things like stickers makes it easier for them to try the food. They are also more likely to rate the food positively in the future.

7. Understand their values

Children don’t see the world as adults do, and as a result they have very different values. They could care less about health—most kids think they’re invincible—so telling them a food is healthy is unlikely to get you very far (and can often backfire). On the other hand, most children feel limited by their size and wish to be bigger and stronger. Explaining that broccoli “helps you grow” is therefore more effective than, “it’s healthy” or “because I said so.”

8. Offer diverse food colors

One thing you have working in your favor is that children like colorful foods. You can expose them to more colors by adding more vegetables to their plates. While adults tend to like flavors mingled together, children often prefer them separate. So you may have better luck making separate vegetable dishes instead of a big, mono-color casserole.

9. Arrange food in patterns on the plate

Another reason to cook different vegetables separately is that children love when their food is designed into patterns on their plate. Unlike adults, who prefer foods clumped near each other in the center of the plate, kids like their food separated into piles around the perimeter. If you shape it into a heart or smiley face, they’ll like it even more. This is another way to make food fun.

10. Use butter, garlic and bacon

There’s nothing wrong with adding additional flavors to vegetables to make them more appealing to children. For a picky child, the most important thing is that he gets comfortable and familiar with the rejected food. If that means serving it along with something you know he’ll enjoy, like cheese or bacon, that’s fine. I encourage you to use ingredients that are as close to real food (minimally processed without strange chemicals) as possible, but children can handle a few extra calories, especially if it helps them learn to enjoy spinach.

11. Keep at it

Some children will be more difficult than others, and will require more effort and patience. It’s important to realize, however, that the habits they develop at a young age will remain with them long into adulthood. For your sake and theirs, it is worth solving picky eating problems as soon as possible. Continue to set a good example, create fun, positive experiences around food, let them help in the kitchen, enforce the one bite rule and do anything else you can to keep exposing them, in a pleasant way, to the healthy foods they reject. Your persistence will pay off.

How do you get your kids to eat healthy?

Originally published October 17, 2012.

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30 Responses to “11 Proven Ways To Get Kids To Eat More Vegetables”

  1. Alice says:

    Here’s another one: Don’t assume they won’t like something. The past couple of years, I’ve been able to get my son to try more and more things. Part of it has been my attitude that food is wonderful, healthy, delicious, etc. If I offer him something and preface it with “you have to try just one bite of this roasted broccoli” – it’s almost like I’m foreshadowing to him that this is something he might not like, which starts to frame his reaction even before he’s tried it. If I just put some on his plate and say “here’s some fantastic roasted broccoli I made” he will give it a taste and so often I get something more along the lines of “wow, that’s really good!” It’s about context, attitude, and not jumping to conclusions that because something is healthy, I’m going to have to work extra hard to get him to try just one bite.

  2. Kari says:

    My mom upgraded the one bite rule to the two bite rule. I agree with it. The first bite, especially if it’s of something weird, you’re still sorting out texture, and possibly fighting your initial reaction. The second bite is more honest. Taking two bites also slows you down and you won’t just shove a bite in your face in preparation for asking if you can have fries, now.

    The funny thing is I now eat a much more diverse diet than my mom.

  3. Janet Nezon says:

    Great post Darya! I agree with all of your points, especially when it comes to creating a “rainbow plate” of colorful foods! One additional suggestion I’d add is for parents to relax! It’s common for parents to worry about the way their children are eating, and this often translates to tension at the dinner table. Most kids pass through the “picky” stage, and they’ll do so faster if there’s a lot less drama served up with meals. I always advice parents to use meal time to chat about anything other than what’s being eaten! Put a variety of colorful, healthy foods on the table, let everyone serve themselves a reasonable portion, and just focus on being together. Meal time is a great time to catch up on the events of everyone’s day – it’s not the time for a nutrition lecture!

    • I love the idea of family time, Janet! I do also like to share a bit about the “healthy” cool things that a food might be doing for us — carrots to see well — IN THE DARK — so much cooler than just “to see well :)”.

  4. Alexandra says:

    Great post!
    I find that lots of kids enjoy crunchy foods. My son eats crispy foods much easier and happier than any other kind. Most vegetables he would eat are the ones that can be eaten raw or blanched, or kale or chard chips. Over-cooked vegetables are not the best way to get them to eat produce. Although crunchy foods can be a chocking hazard to very young children!
    Also, a bit of all natural umami flavoring (white miso, nutritional yeast, tamari sauce, potatoes, tomatoes, aged meats or cheese, mayo, etc) tends to be a hit to season food for children.

  5. I have to agree with the make food fun concept. I have two children as well and I know for a fact that they wouldn’t of tried some things in the past if not for the fact that I showed it as fun in the past.

  6. JuliDH says:

    Naming the vegetable and comparing it to similar vegetables they may already like or are in the same family- potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams and carrots grow underground, we don’t eat the tops and they make interesting french fries. Broccoli, cauliflower cabbage and brussel sprouts make stinky farts (for those whose children are motivated by such).
    Offering the veggies in multiple formats; we have a crudite plate with hummus on the table every dinner. It often includes peppers, cucumber, string beans and baby carrrots. They can eat as much of the veggie plate as they want, and sometimes choose to eat that instead of that day’s cooked meal.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Haha, love it. For the adults in the house who are less motivated by stench, I’ve had terrific luck with including probiotics (ironically kimchi and sauerkraut) regularly in my diet. Solves all cruciferous related digestive issues ;)

  7. maxie says:

    I have no suggestions except for this one from Alice@12:37, “Part of it has been my attitude that food is wonderful, healthy, delicious, etc…”

    I was lucky to grow up in an extended family with this same attitude, as was my husband, so we didn’t have any hang-ups about any food and none of our kids are picky eaters. Sure, everyone has an item they really don’t like, but I never pushed anything on them. We did as our moms and grandmoms did–put the food on the table and look forward to eating it. I’m hoping my kids carry that over to their kids when they have them.

  8. sixtyfive says:

    Recently read “French Kids Eat Everything”. An eye-opening read. Highly recommended. In this country we generally start babies on solids by giving them rice cereal. In France it’s pureed leeks, gradually adding other “sweet” vegetables (beets, spinach, carrots). Unwittingly (I think) the “French Paradox) is explained: no snacking!!!! EVER.

  9. Turns out kids in public schools eat more veggies when they give ‘em catchy names, like “X Ray Vision Carrots,” “Power Punch Broccoli”, “Tiny Tasty Tree Tops” and “Silly Dilly Green Beans”.

    http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/outreach/whatname.html

    Hey, why not use food marketing principles for good instead of evil >?

    Leslie Nolen
    The Radial Group

  10. Great post Darya. Love the commensgt about making food fun and decorating the plate. Also agree with you abot adding flavours to the meal that you know they will enjoy. I also find adding 1 or 2 of their favourite vegetables to a meal will help them to try the others as there is some familiarity on the plate.

  11. These are great ideas – I’ve got a few to add to your list on my blog if you fancy taking a look!

  12. Monique Larsen says:

    My 9 year old is reading Foodist with me. He made cut outs for our fridge based on the “Foodist’s Plate”. He draws all the new veggies, legumes, grains, etc. that we eat on the fridge cut-outs. We want to see how many different veggies we can try before the end of summer. :)

  13. Lisa H says:

    One easy trick is to use bamboo skewers. You can skewer almost anything (like french toast and fruit, or cheese and meat).

    My kids were getting to be very picky eaters, but they have completely changed since I made one big change: I now make almost everything from scratch. I used to feed them *relatively* healthy foods like organic boxed mac & cheese, organic canned spaghettios, packaged organic pizza, etc.

    Then one day, I made homemade spaghettios and the kids hated it. They said it didn’t taste like the spaghettios they always ate. That’s when I realized they had become accustomed to foods tasting exactly the same every time. The flavor of packaged/prepared foods never varies. On the other hand, when you make it yourself (and fresh), it’s just the opposite; it never tastes exactly the same.

    Since I’ve made this change, there’s been a tremendous difference in the kids. They never complain about food anymore. In fact, I often get, “This is delicious!” (and that from a 5-year-old!).

    • MsB says:

      Thanks for bringing up the “organic” processed food trap. So many parents are duped by this crap.

      • Lisa H says:

        It’s so true. I cannot tell you the number of parents who send their kids to school with organic chocolate bunnies and think they are giving them healthy food.

  14. Darya, great tips! I love the bits about patterns on the plate, and eat this to run away from the t-rex comments! Your reader comments are great too – interesting about the naming of veggies increasing their consumption in schools! Also, keeping track of how many new ones you try for summer! The skewers are a great idea too! I would add that cookie cutters work for many foods, and frozen veggies often appeal to kiddos! Here are my tips you can check out! http://fresh-you.blogspot.com/2012/01/8-trickstips-for-picky-eaters.html Happy weekend!! Colleen :)

  15. Kids can often be very difficult because they don’t want to eat anything that looks strange or is green or that they know is healthy because they think it’s going to taste ‘icky’ even if they’ve never had it before. So convincing them to try new things (unless it’s a new candy or cookie) is pretty difficult. I like these options because they appeal to the things children like such as fun colors or the flavor of butter and garlic. This is one of my articles about getting older kids to eat healthy http://www.lifestylemenu.com/teen-health-and-wellness/

  16. Jenny says:

    Fantastically helpful article. I’ve got a six year old who is quite keen on trying new foods and a five year old who is stubborn to the point of exasperation – reward charts, colorful plates, small tasters – tried them all. You’ve given me a few more options to go at here.

  17. Rob Lang says:

    We’re still working on this, with some success. We’re doing most of the things in your list, will try the one bite rule for new things. I also like the commenter who mentioned using crunchy textures, that’s a great idea.

    Rather than get exasperated with feeding, I drew a cartoon about it. Not going to make my son eat any better but cheered up his Mum and I!

  18. Aspiemum says:

    ” It’s important to realize, however, that the habits they develop at a young age will remain with them long into adulthood”
    Sorry but this anxiety producing statement just is NOT true! I was a very fussy eater throughout my childhood and teenage years. What changed me was meeting my now husband and his gentle encouragement and my readiness is what changed my habits…as an adult!
    Now we have a son on the autism spectrum who has extreme sensory sensitivities to the taste, smell and texture of food and he is very fussy. He eats a very limited range of food, but most of his ‘list’ is healthy. It’s taken us 3 years to get him to the stage where he can take a small bite of up to three vegies at meal time. Many of the ideas here are great, but will not work for us. I’ll take anything I can get though and will try those that have a chance! Thanks for sharing your thoughts
    Mx

  19. rc says:

    Shape Matters

    We also found that the shape of vegetables can make a difference (didn’t read all of the posts, not sure if this one is already there). We have a 2-yr-old who will only eat carrots when they’re raw and whole (she’ll eat an entire carrot with no prodding this way) and will only eat bell peppers if they’re raw and cut into 0.5″ squares. Still searching for other idiosyncrasies that will boost vegetable eating…

  20. We use the 1 bite rule. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I have found a great recipe that I use once a week and for my child, she gets a great deal of veggies this way and also pasta sauce with finely chopped up vegetables (every kind I can think of that make sense). Here is my blog post with a great recipe.
    [link removed]

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