How to get kids to eat more vegetables

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

Since I am a health and fitness coach and I have 3 daughters of my own, many people have asked me for tips to get their kids eating healthier. I feel you.  The struggle is real.

The good news is it is not impossible. The bad news is that it requires consistency and persistence 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 your eating patterns. 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 even the most basice of vegetables if they don’t see you eating them yourself.

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. I love when my kids pick fingerling potatoes, eggplant, Kiwi, English cucumbers and starfruit simply for their unique shape.  My girls love coming home and cutting into these culinary adventures so they can have a taste of their selection. They feel in control and love the adventure of shopping with you.  Go ahead, give them a bag next time your at the store and see what they put in it. 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 but I think the “two bite rule” is even more successful.  The first bite always has a negative mindset with it.  The second one actually gives the child a chance to taste the food and have a slightly more positive experience with it.  If you have a talkative child, like mine are, ask them to describe the food to you as they chew it.  This allows the child to take their mind of the taste of the new food and focus more on family time and story sharing.  Kids love this!  After enough exposures to a certain food the child and usually they begin to rate it more favorably but keep introducing it consistently and make sure your kids see you eating your veggies too.

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 or two bites 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. Rewarding a child for trying one bite of a rejected food with things like stickers or picking the chair they want to sit in at the dinner table 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.”  Telling my girls that Kale makes their hair shiny or carrots makes their eyes bright makes them want to eat these foods.

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.  Or roast a big pan of mixed vegetables and let everyone dig in to anything they want.  All those bright colors and being able to simply grab the vegetables with their fingers off the tray makes eating a variety of vegetables more enjoyable.

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.  Boiling any vegetable makes kids (and adults) dislike the taste of vegetables.  Who likes water logged broccoli.  Crunchy Broccoli that have the texture of chips, yes please! I encourage you roast your vegetables at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes tossed in balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.  For an extra dose of yum you can finish it off  your roasted vegetables with bacon pieces or shredded cheese. If your kids need ketchup or ranch to get through their two bite rule, no problem.  Just make sure these products are minimally processed.

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.  Don’t turn down vegetables yourself.  Make sure your plate has at least 2 cups of vegetables on it.  Rave over how good the vegetables are.  Eat your vegetables throughout the day.  Yes, vegetables for breakfast, snacks, lunch and dinner.  Your kids look up to you and they see your choices so make your choices be influential and healthy for them and yourself. Create fun, positive experiences around food, let them help in the kitchen, enforce the two 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.