Frustration aside, if you’re a parent you have to admit: A child’s ability to avoid eating vegetables, no matter how many tactics (or bribes or threats) you try, is pretty damn impressive. Truly, that willpower will serve them well someday. But not today.
Today you must win the battle of wills to help your stubborn little one grow up strong. So, I brought in the experts — both dieticians and forged-by-fire parents — to share their advice on how to get kids to eat more veggies with less hassle.
Before we jump in, let’s determine the end goal: How many servings of vegetables do children actually need each day, and why? The first answer depends on age, says registered dietitian Stephanie Clarke, co-author of Happy, Healthy Pregnancy Cookbook, who breaks it out like this:
- Ages 2-3: at least 1 cup/day
- Ages 4-8: at least 1.5 cups/day
- Ages 9-13: at least 2 cups/day for girls, 2.5 cups/day for boys
- Ages 14-18: at least 2.5 cups/day for girls, 3 cups/day for boys
If you’re wondering whether fruit counts toward those servings, Clarke says the answer is “not technically.” While fruits contain some of the same nutrients as vegetables, such as fiber and vitamin C, they don’t deliver the same minerals such as calcium, iron, and zinc. Plus they’re sweeter and more calorie-dense, so it's not an even exchange.
That said, fruit is still a nutritious piece of a child’s diet, says Clarke. “So while you can’t replace veggies with fruit, an apple or orange is better than nothing while you're working on getting your kids to love veggies.”
As for why veggies matter, kids who eat more vegetables benefit both now and later. “Vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber and antioxidants, which are needed for growth,” says Clarke. “Plus, learning to enjoy veggies as a child makes it more likely that kids will continue to eat them as adults, which can help lower their risk of many diseases later in life.”
How to Get Kids to Eat More Veggies: 10 Hacks You Should Try
In other words, if you’re picking your battles, this is one worth fighting for. Here are some unconventional ways to help you figure out how to get kids to eat more veggies.
1. Start With Your Plate
Kids do as you do. “First and foremost, be a role model,” says nutrition consultant Keri Gans, RDN, author of The Small Change Diet. “Lead by example by serving veggies to the entire family and actually eating them yourself,” says Gans. If your kids see you avoiding vegetables or any foods you don’t like, it trains them to think they can do the same.
2. Bury the Bitterness
Vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts are naturally bitter, and about 70% of us are born with a genetic aversion to bitter taste, according to one study on kids in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The same study found a pretty simple solution: Ranch dressing. When the kids dunked their broccoli in it, they ate 80% more of the veggie.
Ranch isn’t exactly a nutritional star, but consider it a gateway dip to healthier alternatives like hummus and guacamole. “My kids like dipping their veggies in a garlicky yogurt dip I make with plain whole milk yogurt, a splash of lemon juice, garlic, salt, and the tiniest bit of honey,” says Clarke.
3. Turn Up the Heat to Make Them Sweet
Another way to tone down the bitterness of vegetables is through roasting, which caramelizes the natural sugars so they taste sweeter. “Roasting veggies, especially in fry shapes, can help make them more palatable and fun,” says Clarke. Roasted carrot “fries” or sweet potato fries and roasted green beans are good ones to try.
“I make what we call ‘broccoli fries,’” says Amy Cleckler, a psychotherapist and mom of two sons, ages 7 and 3, in Durham, North Carolina. “I chop broccoli very small, toss it in a bowl with salt, pepper, and more olive oil than you would think, spread it flat on a baking sheet, and roast at 420° for 20 minutes. My boys will eat an entire head of broccoli this way.”
4. Give Them a Taste Test
You know that sautéed green beans taste totally different than dilly beans or green bean casserole. But to your kid, it’s all the same (gross) green bean, and they want none of it. So Lindsay Livingston, RD, mom of three and author of the blog The Lean Green Bean, suggests setting up a fun taste test, cooking the same veggie three different ways.
“Encourage them to lick, smell, and touch it,” says Livingston. “They don’t have to swallow it for it to be a successful exposure.” And who knows, you might find a version they actually enjoy — or at least, don’t monopolize dinner moaning about.
5. Break Out the Stickers
To encourage veggie exploration, Livingston recommends creating a “new foods” chart. “Reward them with a sticker or other non-food reward each time they try something new on the chart,” she suggests.
The reward could be a small toy, like a super ball or jump rope, or an extra bedtime story. But don’t make it a sweet — they’ll learn to associate junk food with feeling good and happy, when the goal is to make them feel that way about cauliflower and spinach.
6. Take the Pressure Off
“Pressuring a kid to eat their veggies or any other food usually backfires, because they're not internally motivated to try the food,” says Janel Funk, a registered dietitian in Boston and mom of 3-year-old twin girls and a 6-year-old son. “If they see it on the plate with no pressure to eat it and no strings attached, they may be more likely to try it on their own time.”
The key here is putting the vegetable on their plate — even if they fight you on mere proximity — so the opportunity to try it is there. “Just keep providing it; that’s how my son ultimately came to the realization that broccoli is his favorite veggie,” says Funk.
7. Make Like It’s for Instagram
Much like their grownups, “kids get bored, and they also value presentation,” says Clarke. This rang true for a lot of the moms I spoke to, including Austin Dixon, a licensed acupuncturist in Durham, North Carolina, and mother of two, ages 8 and 6.
“The kids eat more when I make the food pretty. They are just more likely to eat carrots displayed nicely on a snack plate versus out of a bag,” says Dixon. She has also led activities in her kids’ classes where they make art with their veggies and fruit. “All the kids tried new things and ate most of their ‘art.’”
8. Make It Look Like Something Else
Remember how Funk’s son eventually realized he liked broccoli? Full disclosure: It took five years. In other words, you have to sneak veggies in where you can while you’re also taking the nobler “let them learn on their own” approach. Ashley Trupp, mom of two boys ages 7 and 2 in Longmont, Colorado, has become a pro at this
“I put pureed butternut squash in mac and cheese; I shred zucchini and mix with a little flour, baking powder, and Parmesan to make savory waffles; I mix pumpkin into oatmeal to make ‘pumpkin pie oatmeal.’ I add veggies to every dish,” says Trupp. “Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but I don't make a big deal out of it. I know that if they eat what I give them 75% of the time, they'll be ok.”
9. Follow the Three E’s: Expose, Explore, Expand
Like Clarke, pediatric feeding expert Melanie Potock believes the main reason we want kids to eat vegetables is so that they grow up to be adults who eat vegetables. The author of Adventures in Veggieland: Help Your Kids Learn to Love Vegetables has devised the “three E” process to slowly familiarize kids with vegetables until they’re a normal part of everyday life:
- Expose: Expose kids by encouraging them to help you shop in the produce aisle or farmer's market, help wash vegetables from the garden, and cook with you.
- Explore: Kids as young as 2 can help pull apart cauliflower, stack pepper rings for crudité, or chop with child-safe knives. Older kids can help at the stove, making simple recipes with you.
- Expand: As you begin to get your kids to eat their vegetables, parents can expand the recipes to be a bit more complex, like mushroom risotto or vegetable lasagna.
“Follow the three E's, keep it fun, and create memories together, and it will eventually lead to the fourth E: Eating vegetables!” says Potock.
10. Don’t Give Up
“Just because a child doesn’t like something one day doesn’t mean they won’t like it another — their taste buds are constantly evolving,” says Gans. “Research suggests a child may need to try a new food 10 or more times before they accept it.” Of course, you can help them along by enhancing the flavor. Roasting, dips, and even butter and cheese are all fair game.
How to Get Kids to Eat More Veggies: The Bottom Line
Hopefully, one or more of these tricks will work for you to get your kids to eat their vegetables, but be patient. “Some of these strategies may take time — more time than you want — and that's ok,” says Clarke. “In the long run, it's most important to offer your kids the opportunity to learn to like and eat a variety of foods and also to have a healthy relationship with food.”