How do you get kids to eat vegetables?
This is a question that I find many people have, especially if they are new to vegetarianism, veganism, or they are making the switch to a plant based diet. Let me share a few things I did along the way to get my kids to be veggie lovers.
Around three years ago, we were going through the line at a local restaurant where you tell them what you in your wrap (a falafel wrap). My son was only 10 at the time and he loaded it up with all kinds of veggies. He does the same thing at Subway, by the way. The man working at this restaurant couldn't believe all the stuff he was getting at his age and said to him "you have quite a well developed palate." Yes, my kids love their veggies and have no problem eating just about any of them. But that wasn't by accident or luck, it's been in how we have raised them.
Today (2019) my kids are 13 and 15. They have been vegetarian since birth. They are primarily vegan, because at home I only do vegan cooking and most grocery items I buy are vegan. They do eat pizza here and there, as well as something like cake, or when they eat out they may get something that is vegetarian, but not vegan. But in their lifetime I've never bought cow's milk and never bought eggs, so those products are not in our home. How did I get them to eat and love all the plant based foods? let me explain...
I'm going to be completely honest in saying that little kids can't make their own foods or do the shopping, so their eating habits are largely enabled by their parents. Some parents don't like to hear that, but it's the truth. If a child will only eat crackers all day, that's not the child's fault, that's the parents fault for allowing such a thing. But you can change it, especially if they are still toddlers! Granted, there are children (especially those with special needs) who have issues with things like textures. I get that, but there are plenty of other foods out there, so skip that food item and keep going.
Here are some things I did to help encourage my kids to love their veggies:
- Don't hide the vegetables. Many people want to hide the vegetables to get their kids to eat them. I never did that and don't care for the practice. If you do that, your kids will never come to know that they actually do like that vegetable. Keep veggies out in the open so they can learn that they do indeed like them. Hiding veggies may help if you have major nutritional need concerns, but it won't help get kids to learn to like veggies.
- Let them pick things out to try. When my kids were toddlers we would go to the farmer's market every week and I'd let them pick out one item every week, no questions asked. No matter what kind of fruit or vegetable they picked, we bought it. This helps get them interested in the produce. One time, my daughter picked out a big bunch of beautiful radishes. I had no idea what I'd do with so many radishes. But I bought it, brought it home and thinly sliced and seasoned them, then baked them in the oven to make radish chips. They loved them!
- Adopt a one bite rule. I don't believe in making kids eat the food on their plate. But I have always had a one bite rule. I make the plates up for dinner (as opposed to setting it out for self serve) and always put a little bit of the veggie item on their plate, even if they have said they don't like it. The one bite rule means they have to take just one bite of it (and swallow it, not spit it out). Sometimes it takes kids 20 times trying a food before they develop a taste for it. So don't give up, continue to put that one bite on their plate and have them take the one bite. After a while there is a good chance they will want more than the one bite. I got my kids to learn to love many veggies with this method. Over time, that one bite turned into a whole helping, because they ended up developing a taste for it and liking it.
- Get kids involved in preparation. Even little kids can do things to get involved in helping to prepare foods. When they get involved it gets them more interested in trying the food, and teaches them culinary skills. Give little kids a knife and teach them how to cut veggies, teach them how to wash them, etc.
- Grow some veggies. This is an idea that I love, but we were not very successful at. I hope that you will be more successful. Start a small garden, even a container one, to grow some veggies. Kids can help tend to it and then eat what it produces. We tried this, but I don't have a green thumb, so we didn't get much to grow, unfortunately.
- Lead by example. This sounds easy, but many people forget about how important it is. Kids will often grow up doing what their parents do, rather than what their parents say. Be the kind of parent who loves veggies and eats them daily. Let your child see that you eat them. On that same note, watch how others influence their tastes as well. For example, my son had loved broccoli for years. Then one night he had a friend over for dinner. I was serving broccoli with the meal and that boy said how disgusting broccoli was and how he refused to eat it. Well, my son stopped eating broccoli for months after that. I had to do damage control and get him back to eating his broccoli!
- Let them graze. Toddlers love to graze when it comes to eating. So let them, but make it healthy food. I used to make a plate that had healthy food on it and leave it on the table so they could graze. It would have cut up cucumbers, cauliflower, fruits, vegan quesadilla, etc.
- Have some fun with it. If you can find a way to make it fun, you may be able to get them to eat something they are turning away from. When my kids were toddlers I wanted them to eat beets. They were against it. I told them that it would turn their poop purple. Well, that worked. They ate their beets, they saw some purple poop, and they have been loving beets ever since.
- Remind them why eating healthy food is important. I love to tell my kids what is in the food that makes it healthy. I tell them to eat raw cauliflower so that it helps fight cancer, eat some berries after a workout to help with recovery, I remind them that the fiber keeps them from being constipated, that plant based foods are loaded with antioxidants (what antioxidants are and why they are so important) and so on. The more they learn about the importance of eating those foods, the more they will want them.
- Get at least one vegetarian or vegan cookbook for kids. I have a couple of cookbooks that are for kids and are all vegetarian and vegan recipes. My kids could pick out recipes to make in the book and then we'd make them together. Now that my daughter is 15, she will sometimes find a recipe to make the family on her own. Being kids cookbooks they tend to get them more interested than adult cookbooks do. One book we really like is Kidilicious (my daughter is 10 in those pictures!).
- Give free reign on fruits and veggies. My kids know that anytime of the day they can eat some fruit and veggies, and they do. We always have a lot of produce in the house, so they eat the stuff as snacks. Don't get me wrong, they also eat things like cookies and other non-healthy snacks. But they eat a lot of healthy snacks, like fruit, sliced cucumbers, pickles, raw cauliflower, carrots and celery with hummus, etc.
With every dinner I make, I serve the main entree, along with at least one vegetable and one fruit. I serve fruit with every meal. Whether it's a fruit salad I make fresh, or I add some berries or cut up fruit to the plate, fruit is a daily part of our dinner. It adds many of the same nutrients that you can get from veggies. My kids eat most vegetables. As I write this I am trying to think of a vegetable they outright don't like and won't eat and I can't think of one. At their age now, I would let them skip something they didn't like, because I know they are developed enough to not be turning away just because it's a vegetable. They love veggies, so if they turn something away I know they have tried it and just didn't like it (even after 20 tries).
If you are adopting this diet and lifestyle due to ethical reasons, you can help strengthen the commitment to it by helping kids make a connection to animals. This will help them to see that they are not food, they are beings. Show them movies, read them books, and talk about the importance of being kind to animals and reducing contribution to animal cruelty through our lifestyle choices.