If you want your picky eater to try more food, you need to offer it to her consistently, scientists say. It is so simple! To encourage your child to eat more veggies, try these expert tips.
As parents, we all want our children to eat a variety of healthy foods, including veggies. But, as research shows, children’s brains are wired to favour sweeter, more calorie-dense foods – including breast milk (and things like muffins and processed, starchy foods later), which have a naturally sweet taste. As a result, many children will turn their heads when offered bitter, sour, or salty foods – some of the predominant flavours in vegetables. What is the solution? Scientists believe a child’s craving for sweeter foods can be tamed with age and that offering your children a variety of flavours from a young age can help them to accept different foods and textures.
Which vegetables are best to offer first?
Children usually find starchy vegetables more acceptable and are more willing to try them as they don’t have strong flavours. These include beans, butternut, pumpkin, sweet potato, potato, cooked carrots, corn, chickpeas, lentils, and peas. Non-starchy vegetables tend to have strong, bitter, or sour flavours that children might find less appealing. However, it’s particularly this group of vegetables that you should be including more often in daily meals to increase your child’s acceptance of these vegetables. They include tomatoes, raw carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant (brinjal), snap peas, cabbage, squash, brussels sprouts, peppers, cucumber, celery, green beans, lettuce, marrows, mushrooms, spinach, watercress, and onions.
Did you know?
Fruit and vegetables are similar in that both groups are rich in antioxidants and micronutrients, fibre, and contribute to your child’s water intake. However, they don’t necessarily provide the same types and amounts of micronutrients, and therefore it’s essential to provide a variety in your little one’s diet. Also, fruit is significantly higher in fructose (sugar) than vegetables. This makes fruits sweeter and less bitter or sour than vegetables. Therefore, a child that fills up on fruit alone won’t be too keen to try vegetables and accept that they could be bland, bitter, or sour. Although it’s tricky with picky eaters, ideally, you want your child to fill up on more veggies than fruit daily to lower the sugar intake overall in her diet.
The five-a-day campaign
The 5-a-day campaign suggests we provide our children with 5 different types of fruit and vegetables daily. 2 fruits and 3 vegetables or 3 fruits and 2 vegetables. This doesn’t include fruit juice, fruit rolls, or vegetable crisps, but rather fresh, wholesome options.
We chat to Lucinda Lourens, a registered dietician and a mom of two, on ways you can up your child’s veggie intake: Food acceptance, particularly vegetables, starts with visual sensitisation. This means your child should see vegetables while grocery shopping, in the refrigerator, her lunchbox, and in meals. Exposure is the key to accepting new options.
- Portion size matters! Small portions can be less intimidating at first, which means your child might be more willing to try it.
- Talk positively about vegetables. Teach your child that veggies nourish our bodies, keep us healthy, and help us to grow. Use language that she can understand and relate to.
- If you have the space, start a veggie garden. Your child will see and learn how veggies grow and may be more familiar with them when they’re dished up for lunch or dinner.
- Be creative. Lettuce cups can be used as boats. Cars can be made by combining cherry tomatoes with a cucumber stick, and you can make a butterfly by combining a baby carrot with sliced pepper rings.
- Provide vibrant, fresh vegetable snacks as part of your child’s lunchbox.
- Involve your child when you cook. Give her age-appropriate instructions during food preparation such as washing, grating, peeling, cutting, and stirring.
- Always keep fresh, cut-up vegetable options in small containers on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Toddlers and bigger children can help themselves and nibble on them throughout the day.
- Practise what you preach! Your child will be more accepting of trying new vegetables if you eat them yourself.
- When introducing a new veggie, pair it with a familiar dish your child likes.
- Allow your child to eat washed veggies with her hands. Smelling, touching, rolling, licking, and squishing will help her accept the veggies she’s trying.
Top tip: You might need to offer your child a new veggie 13 to 15 times before she’ll consider trying it. This doesn’t mean you need to offer the same veggie for 15 consecutive days, but rather every other day over a period of a few weeks. The key is to try and offer it in different ways. For example, grated zucchini, zucchini pasta, or zucchini muffins. This will give your child a chance to familiarise herself with the flavour. Never force your little one to try a new vegetable or expect her to finish the portion. Rather respect her cues and willingness to try and eat a new vegetable when she’s ready.