Why Your Kids Won’t Eat Their Vegetables
- Written by Kelly Harris
- July 1, 2021
- 7 min read
Before I was a parent, I really thought I had parenting all figured out. I was fresh out of nutrition school and I KNEW that my future child would be a very healthy eater. I wrongfully assumed that it is really the parents at fault when kids become fussy eaters.
Well, did I have a reality check coming!
The good news is that there is a lot we can do to encourage healthy eating behaviours in our children. Healthy eating is linked to better outcomes for our children throughout their entire lives, including better health, higher self-esteem and fewer emotional problems.
So, why don’t kids like vegetables? Well, it is believed that babies are biologically hardwired to crave and prefer sweet tastes from birth until adolescence. This is probably because in our evolutionary history, when foods were scarcer, sweet foods indicated a higher caloric value which would have been an advantage for a rapidly growing child’s body.
Of course, as we all know, calories aren’t so hard to come by these days, with our supermarkets full of sugary processed treats, all cheap and easy to buy. So many of our children are now overnourished, with nearly 10% of reception age children in the UK falling into the obesity weight range. When tackling weight issues of any kind in children (be it underweight or overweight) it is really important to handle the matter carefully and try not to make a big deal about it in front of them. Don’t talk about their weight, rather encourage them to have a healthy self-esteem, and try to be a good role model, consistently offering healthy meals and encouraging lots of fun outdoor activities.
Researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found that children who are healthy eaters have fewer peer-related issues of being bullied or picked on, regardless of their body weight.
Here are some tips and tricks to introduce some healthy eating habits into your child’s life.
1. Fruits are Actually Ok
When your child prefers bananas to broccoli, well, that’s because children are much more sensitive to bitter tastes than we are. They are geared to prefer sweet flavours. My own daughter just wanted to eat fruit for nearly a year after weaning her onto solid foods. At first, I battled her instincts, but eventually, I learned to lean in and over time her tastes slowly broadened and now I have a 6-year-old who snacks on bags of alfalfa sprouts.
I once overheard a health visitor in my local practice chide a mother for letting her baby eat fruit and encouraged her to feed the infant Twiglets instead. Swapping a whole food like fruits that are filled with fibre, water and antioxidants for a processed, packaged snack food filled with salt and wheat flour is NOT good nutritional advice. Your child’s preference for fruit is not going to steer them towards a life of sugar addiction. By all means, offer your child fruit to snack on, but offer a variety of rainbow colours and flavours so they will get a range of nutrients and health benefits. Not all fruits have to be overly sweet, like tomatoes, avocados and cucumbers, so don’t forget to include those too. Berries are also comparatively low in sugars compared to tropical fruits.
2. Keep Offering Vegetables
Believe me, I really know how disheartening it is when you’re cleaning rejected organic spinach off the floor for the 18th day in a row. It is frustrating when you’ve spent money buying healthy food, precious time preparing it, and now it’s all going straight into the compost bin. All I can say is keep trying. It can take 10, sometimes 20 times for a child to develop a taste for a new food. Make small portions of anything you’re trying to introduce as a new food so there isn’t too much food waste if it is rejected for a while at first.
3. Make it Taste Good
I know, that sounds really obvious, but if you’re expecting your child to eat something that is bland, bitter or overcooked, can you really blame them for refusing to eat it? Make sure it tastes good before you serve it to them. Adding a very small portion of butter to your broccoli, cheese sauce to your cauliflower or a teaspoon of double cream to your spinach and peas isn’t going to be the end of the world and consider it a success, not a compromise, if your child suddenly starts loving the vegetables they once detested. The goal is to have your child grow into an adult who enjoys a wide variety of healthy whole foods.
4. Hide it
This is something I do all the time. It requires you being a bit sneaky because if they catch you, they might balk at trying the finished meal, but by adding a bit of pureed sweet potato into a cheese sauce or blending some butternut squash or a chunk of beetroot into a strawberry smoothie, your child will be none the wiser and you will know that they’ve received a bit more vegetable goodness.
5. Swap it
This is a technique that works well with some children and less well with others. Swap regular pizza for one with a cauliflower crust. (You can find recipes for cauliflower pizza crust online or you can buy them pre-made in the frozen section at the supermarket.) Or change out regular pasta for chickpea, lentil or black bean pasta. If you start making these healthy swaps with younger children you’re more likely to have the veggie alternatives accepted without question. I’ve had mixed success, but I encourage you to experiment. There’s nothing wrong with real pizza crust or wheat pasta in moderation, but if there’s a way to swap it out for some healthy vegetable or pulse-based nutrition once in a while, then go for it!
6. Don’t Become a Short-Order Chef at Home
Your time is limited and valuable. You have made an effort to buy and prepare healthy, nutritious meals for your family. Don’t become a short-order chef by creating second, third, fourth, etc meal options when the meal you’ve created has been rejected by your child. You can feel pressured to make multiple meal options so your little one will eat, especially if you have a picky eater or an underweight child. For children who are old enough to understand, explain that next time you will make something different for them, but today we are having this meal as a family. Don’t make food a negotiating or bargaining tool in your household. It isn’t good for your emotional wellbeing or your pocketbook, and it can become an internalised part of your child’s relationship with food and encourage disordered eating behaviours as they grow older.
It is difficult when your child has spent all day asking for fish fingers for supper and then has a meltdown because you present them with fish fingers at supper. It is so frustrating and there’s very little you can do to pre-empt a situation like that. But when you know you might be making a meal where some resistance is likely, include some foods you know your child will gobble up and then encourage them to eat (or at least try) the remaining part of the meal.
7. Get the Kids Involved in Mealtime Prep
Kids make the best sous chefs! By allowing your child to get involved in preparing food for snacks and meals, they’ll be more likely to eat the food they’ve helped make. Remember you’ll need to eat it with gusto at the meal too! There are child-safe chopping implements available from Amazon and specialist shops so they can chop vegetables, or just find some risk-free prepping activities for your child, like shelling peas, mashing potatoes or whisking eggs. It may make preparing dinner take a bit longer, but it is a nice bonding activity that teaches your child about where their food comes from and gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment in the meal they’ve helped to prepare.
Older children can get involved in meal planning by searching through cookbooks or recipe websites for healthy plant-based recipes, choosing the meals for the week ahead and creating grocery lists for ingredients. They might even want to help shop for the ingredients too!
8. Eat as a Family
I know this can be difficult, especially if one parent arrives home from work after the children are in bed. But as often as possible, try to sit down at the table and eat a meal as a family. Families who eat meals together regularly have been found to be better at managing their weight as well as handling the stresses of everyday life. It is also a nice time for each member of the family to talk about their day in a relaxed way, encouraging children to develop good communication skills by learning to listen to others and by talking about their own feelings and events from their lives at school and during play.
9. Get Specialist Help if You Need It
Neurodivergent adults and children often can have issues with food. They can struggle with food textures and tastes or they can develop ritualistic behaviours around foods and eating behaviours. These issues have the potential to translate into eating disorders over time, so if you have a child on the autistic spectrum or with ADHD, then seek advice from a nutrition professional who can work with you to ensure your child is getting the best nutrition possible in a way which meets their needs.