Did you know most children are predisposed to liking sweet flavors? It’s usually easier to get kiddos to eat more fruits than vegetables. In fact, most children aren’t getting the recommended servings of vegetables per day. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says fruit intake has increased significantly since 2003, but vegetable consumption remains the same. If you’re wondering how to get kids to eat vegetables, registered dietitian Emma Rueth, UnityPoint Health, gives you seven suggestions to try at home.
How Many Servings of Vegetables Should a Child Eat Each Day?
Doctors typically advise that children begin eating foods around the six-month mark. For ages six through 12 months, it’s best to avoid hard or raw vegetables such as celery, because they can be a choking hazard. Rueth says your child should gradually eat more vegetables to grow into a healthy adult.
- 6 to 8 months. 1 to 3 tablespoons of vegetables, spread across one or two meals.
- 8 to 12 months. 3 to 6 tablespoons of vegetables, spread across two or three meals.
- Toddlers. ¾ to 1 cup of vegetables.
- School-age children. 1½ to 2½ cups of vegetables.
- Adolescents (14+ years). At least 2½ cups of vegetables.
If your child isn’t getting the needed amounts of vegetables, don’t worry! Rueth has seven suggestions to help.
1. Serve Vegetables in a Variety of Ways
Rueth says it doesn’t matter whether they are raw, cooked, canned or even in a pouch (for the younger children), all vegetables count. When it comes to canned food, choose low-sodium whenever possible. If you are giving your baby or toddler pouches, choose varieties with no added sugar or salt, so you will have to glance at the ingredients list. Rueth offers a word of caution about pouches, though.
“I recommend not providing these as your child’s only source of vegetables or fruits. Children should be exposed to the actual produce, prepared in different ways, not just as a puree in a pouch, which eliminates visibility,” Rueth says.
Rueth says the best way to get children older than toddlers to be open to trying vegetables is to continue to expose them to a variety of vegetables prepared in different ways. It can take more than 15 times of trying something unfamiliar to reach acceptance.
2. Takes Notes on Your Child’s Preferences
Make sure you ask the child why they seem to be pushing certain vegetables around their plate. If the answer is as simple as “it’s too crunchy,” the easy solution is to cook the vegetables to a softer texture.
“Serve vegetables, new ones and old favorites, the way your child prefers them. Do they like their vegetables cut in fun shapes or simple veggie sticks? Do they like them separate from other foods on the plate? Offering vegetables in an appealing way will help with acceptance. I recommend caregivers try their best to meet these requests without becoming a short-order cook,” Rueth says.
Rueth also says it’s OK if your child is a huge fan of dip. She says it’s better to go that route than no veggies at all, but she suggests you try a healthy veggie-dip or put a ranch packet in plain yogurt.
3. Get Kids Involved in Food Preparation
Another suggestion for sparking a child’s appetite for veggies is to involve them in food planning and meal decisions. Parents can even help their child grow a garden in the yard or in indoor-containers. It’s also helpful to get older children involved in the actual meal preparation process. Studies show giving children more insight and ownership increases their willingness to eat more vegetables.
4. Try a “Taste Plate”
With a child who doesn’t like vegetables or who is sensitive to texture (“too mushy!” “too crunchy!”), Rueth says you can try a taste plate. Simply offer a tasting plate next to your child’s main dinner plate with a very small portion – a bite or two — of foods to try. If you have a very nervous taster, they may need to explore the food for a couple of meals before trying it. Touching, smelling and even politely spitting the food out should be acceptable for the first few taste plates. The idea is that the child feels less pressure, and thus less resistance, to eat all the food in front of them. If they show interest in new food, they can always have more.
“This tactic is for older children who have already developed a dislike for vegetables. A toddler going through the typical picky stage would not need a taste plate ? simply continued exposure to a variety of vegetables at all meals and snack times,” Rueth says.
5. Serve Vegetables at Every Meal
Rueth says this option helps normalize vegetables and eliminate the pressure of eating less familiar vegetables. It’ll also increase your child’s intake of vegetables over time.
“One bite at each meal and snack time is still better than only one bite at dinner,” Rueth says.
Also, make sure to offer your child vegetables when they are most hungry, such as during meal preparation and snack times. Rueth says if they are truly hungry, it’ll mean more vegetables in their day.
6. Sneak Vegetables into Kids’ Meals
Rueth says it’s acceptable to hide vegetables here and there, though it should not be a caregiver’s only strategy for getting children to eat them. If you’re wondering how to sneak extra vegetables into your kids’ food, try using these food vehicles:
- Vegetable Smoothies. Smoothies are a great option for kids because they’re easy to eat and have a nutrient-packed punch of fiber and flavor. Try blending 2 tablespoons fat (such as nut butter or flax seed) with 1 cup vegetables, 1 cup fruit and 1 cup liquid (such as milk). You can also add yogurt for some extra protein. Just know that younger children may need a dash of honey to counteract the tang of the yogurt.
- Pasta sauce. If your child likes pasta with red sauce, try these vegetables to add: mushrooms, spinach, onions, carrots and even butternut squash.
- Baked goods. Mix in easy-to-bake shredded zucchini or carrots or blend in spinach or pumpkin to muffins or breads or try baked vegetable chips.
For more recipe ideas, Rueth says to research blogs from registered dietitians. She adds, if you buy veggie pasta, veggie straws or other similar items that claim to be made with vegetables, they do not count as a serving of vegetables.
7. Be a Vegetable-Eating Role Model
Rueth says her most important recommendation of all is to be a role model. If caregivers eat a variety of vegetables every day, it will likely help increase acceptance for the whole family.
“Practicing the behaviors you preach to your child is an important step in teaching and convincing them to choose healthy foods,” Rueth says.
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