Who couldn’t stand to use some more veggies in their life? I am writing this to help inspire parents to find ways to encourage their children to eat more veggies and help foster an appreciation towards healthier foods that will last throughout their adult life. Try to implement some of the ideas listed below into your daily routine and experience the multitude of benefits that increasing your fruit and vegetable intake can provide, while simultaneously pleasing your palate.
- Play with the Presentation
- Bring Them to the Table Hungry
- Show Respect and Authority
- Cultivate Their Palate
- Augment What Is Already Popular
- Make Feasting Fun
- Make Your Child a Player in the Production
- The Power Is in the Planning
- Bonus: The Dirty Dozen™ (and Clean Fifteen™) – When to Buy Organic
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. As we try to incorporate strategies for getting our children to adopt healthier eating behaviors, we need to acknowledge that we’ve probably all been there before and draw upon those past experiences as we improve our strategies.
Flashback – 1975
One of the clearest memories of growing up was sitting at the dining room table. I had an absolute detestation towards canned lima beans and peas. As a child, I thought these were the only vegetables God created because they seemed to appear at EVERY meal. Just because dad liked them didn’t mean I did! I refused to eat them.
I remember my dad playing a “game” with me. He told me that if I close my eyes I wouldn’t be able to taste them. I guess I was a brighter child than he thought because I knew this was a line of you-know-what. If this was his way to get me to eat more veggies, it wasn’t working. I respect his efforts.
Now that I look back, I realize it wasn’t so much the taste, it was that mushy texture that grossed me out!
What seemed like hours would pass and I would still be sitting all by myself at the table. I was not allowed to leave until my plate was cleaned.
Sadly, my dog didn’t like peas and lima beans either. 🙁
This lesson prepared me well. I believe it was at this time in my life when I understood the value of empathy, and the ability to look at situations through the eyes of another. Understanding and having tolerance for your child’s behavior is half the battle.
Trying to force a child to do something they do not want to do will not often result in a successful outcome.
Below I will discuss several strategies for getting your child to eat more veggies. Many of the ideas listed below were found and inspired by the book Putting An End To Plant-Based Picky Eaters, by Shoshana Chaim. If you would like to expand on the ideas below, as well as find a host of recipe ideas, I encourage ordering this book.
Play With the Presentation
Try Family Style
Often adults will overestimate just how much food a child wants, or can consume. When we put food on a child’s plate we make assumptions and are often disappointed when they don’t meet our expectations.
Designing a family-style dining atmosphere, where each person can choose what they eat, as well as the portion size, will give the child the power to make their own choices, an experience that is not common for a child. This will also give them the opportunity to take only the amount they think they can eat. Of course, the parent can be there to help suggest, supervise, and observe.
When faced with a picky eater who only wants pasta and french fries, try serving the vegetables before the main course. Provide two or three choices and let the child know the rest of the dinner is on the way. Make sure they at least try one or two pieces/spoons-full of veggies before being offered the rest of the meal.
Food as a Colorful Rainbow
One of the most common images that children associate with is rainbows. Any time a child is lucky enough to see those brightly colored stripes in the shy, they are bound to share with you their excitement.
One great way to get your child to eat more veggies is by bringing this excitement to the table.
Before your meal, get together with your child and have seven white pieces of paper and colored markers. Work with them to make a list of all seven colors of the rainbow. At the top of each piece of paper write each color (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) and see how many fruits and vegetables they can find that together make a rainbow.
Once you have created your lists, take seven envelops, and write one color of the rainbow on each envelope. Then write the names of each fruit or vegetable and place it in the appropriate envelope.
At the beginning of each week have the child pick one piece of paper from each envelope and those seven foods will be incorporated into your meal plan for that week.
You can expand the game by having your child look through magazines and try to find those foods and create a photo collage. Or, give your child some crayons and see if they want to be creative and draw pictures of their rainbow food.
Bring Them to the Table Hungry
Make sure your child is actually hungry when they come to the table
If a child has a candy bar or bag of chips as a snack right before dinner, they will arrive at the table less than hungry. Subsequently, they will then only eat what they want to eat.
Picky Versus Poky
A poky eater will poke and shuffle their food on their plate, never actually eating the food.
If you have a poky eater in the house, they may be bored and seeking attention. A good strategy is to set a designated end time for the meal. Once the meal is officially over, begin to pick up around them. This action will teach the child that the attention paid to them will end when dinner ends. Let them stay at the table alone until they decide they are finished, and give them the task of cleaning up their area on their own.
A picky eater is a child that just won’t eat it. Picky eating may be genetic, and due to their sensitivity to tastes, smells, and textures. Some people have a more acute sense of taste than others, so foods will be more powerful, and can potentially overwhelm their sense of taste. Picky eating may also occur as a child’s way of mimicking their parent’s behavior.
The likelihood of a child being picky will increase if the child is already full when they come to the table. In these cases, they will most often pick their favorite food and ignore the rest. Make sure to limit snacking a couple of hours before mealtime.
Show Respect and Authority
To make your mealtime experience with family most productive, turn off the television and make a rule to not bring electronics to the table. These distractions will prevent the child from being in-tune with their body and discourages mindful eating.
Take this opportunity to teach the child that the dinner table is an area of respect – a place to show gratitude for what we have been given, and to show respect to those currently with us.
Try to keep feelings about food as neutral as possible. Rather than labeling certain foods as being “good or bad,” focus on the health attributes they have, and how they make us feel. If a child says that something looks “disgusting;” try together to reframe that statement with something like “that food is not appealing to me.”
When we use words like “good”, “bad” and “picky,” we are reinforcing behaviors on a subconscious level. If you tell a child often enough that they are bad or picky, they may eventually manifest these behaviors.
Respect the child’s feelings and emotions, try to avoid giving ultimatums like “eat this or no dessert.” If the child does not finish eating their fruits and vegetables, let them know you appreciate their efforts and permit them to try again next time. Keep a mental note and try to prepare that food in a slightly different way – crunchier, softer, differently seasoned or cut.
Children are told what to do all the time. Give them power back with the “two option rule.” Rather than tell them what to eat, give them the power to make at least two choices.
Cultivate Their Palate
Foods have a multitude of tastes and textures, and playing around with these properties can help you win when it comes to getting your child to choose healthy foods. According to Ayurveda, the sense of taste is a natural guide towards proper nutrition.
Foods can taste sweet, sour, salty, pungent (heat-producing – cayenne pepper), bitter, astringent (numbs the tongue, puckers the mouth, and constricts the throat – cranberries) and umami (savory – miso). Food can also be categorized by texture: mushy, chewy, crunchy, hard, smooth, or lumpy.
When introducing your child to new foods, start as close to their natural state as possible. As you test their reaction, over time you can reintroduce these foods again by modifying their taste or texture. We can start by adding a bit of salt, then try some garlic and herbs as we progress to more potent forms of seasoning. To help expand a child’s palate, we need to get the child to eat foods prepared in a variety of ways.
If the child absolutely refuses to eat the food in front of them, try to make small steps forward by asking them to simply lick the food. The next time, see if you can get them to just take one bite. These small bits of progress may lead to ultimate success.
Hide-And-Seek: This food version takes a slightly different spin on that old family favorite. Place a piece of food in front of each person and hide it wrapped in a napkin. Count to three and the first person that opens and eats the food wins. After they eat the food, follow up by asking the child how they liked it by giving it a rating of a) never again, b) I’ll try it again, or c) give me more, I loved it!
Augment What is Already Popular
Make a list of all the family-favorite meals you have eaten together in the past and “veggiefy” them to make them healthier.
“Veggify” Your Fries:
Do your children like french Fries? Try and mix it up using vegetables instead. There are a multitude of ways to make tasty fry alternatives.
Pasta Bar Party:
Add some variety to your pasta night and make it a pasta bar.
You can prepare a few varieties of pasta by finding fun and interesting shaped kinds of pasta to make it fun. Put out a variety of sauces, herbs, seeds, nuts, and veggies.
Challenge your kids to choose at least 5 different toppings to put over their pasta. If this is the first time, you may choose to give your child permission to eat their pasta plain. However, tell them the next time they need to choose at least one topping, and progress upwards each time.
When preparing the sauces for your pasta, you can add some finely chopped vegetables to them, and simmer to perfection!
Who doesn’t like a fun themed night? Mexican night can offer so many fun dishes, that can be easily served family-style . . . tacos, burritos, fajitas, soft tacos.
Put the toppings in small containers and have the children go at it! Keep the “2 option rule” in mind to make sure they include at least two veggie toppings on their Mexican food of choice.
Don’t forget to include the beans! Beans are full of fiber and help regulate blood sugar. Add a “minimum of two beans” to your “2 Option Rule.”
*Put aside some extra lime wedges, salt, and your Mexican adult beverage of choice for later on, when the kids go to sleep! 😉
Have the family decide what type of pizza they want the night before, and decide on at least two veggie toppings. If you are game for something new, try using a cauliflower pizza crust.
Healthy Snack Alternatives
Baked Kale or Brussels Sprouts Chips: Have your children try homemade baked kale or Brussels sprouts chips. When seasoned well, they can make a wonderfully healthy and tasty snack.
Roasted Chickpeas (Garbanzo Beans): Roasted chickpeas are a great source of protein, fiber, and other essential nutrients. When roasted the oven, they have a crunchy nutty taste. Be creative and season them with olive oil, garlic, barbecue sauce, or cinnamon.
Avocado Smoothie OMG, if you haven’t tried an avocado smoothie, you need to! Believe you me, your children won’t even know they are enjoying the healthful benefits of avocado. You can be creative and add a few banana slices, blueberries, or other pieces of fruit to add to the goodness.
Frozen Banana Split: Cut a banana lengthwise like a banana split, and freeze it. When ready to serve, use small containers to give the child a variety of options for toppings: peanut butter, blueberries, strawberries, raisins, almond butter, coconut flakes, chia seeds, chocolate chips.
Like exercising muscles, introducing a child to a variety of foods will condition their taste buds to enjoy new flavors and textures.
Make Feasting Fun
Guess The Mystery Food:
You will need a whiteboard in your kitchen to keep score.
At some point during your dinner have your child cover their eyes. Present them one piece of food from the meal you are currently enjoying and ask them to guess what food it is. If they guess correctly, have them mark a point on the whiteboard. Then have the child test the adults. At the end of the week or month, tally the score. If the child wins, you can award them with a “get out of a chore-free” card. If the adult wins, the children get one extra night of dinner clean-up.
Hint: The child always wins. 🙂
This is a surprise game when the children see the chopsticks at the dinner table, they know what to expect.
Have small bowls with a variety of foods in the bowl. The challenge is to see who can finish the bowl of food first without using their fingers, or dropping the food.
Guess The Food:
A food guessing game challenge. Before you give them their meal, give them hints, and have them try to figure out what they are going to eat.
Find a jar and fill it with little pieces of folded paper. Each piece of paper contains a game or something fun and interesting for them to do. The rule is “you pick it, you do it.”
Use this game when you are attempting to prepare food and the child comes into the room early saying “I’m Hungry.” Have them finish the activity and then they can come back into the kitchen.
Ideas: Take the dog for a walk; ride the bicycle around the block; draw a picture of your best friend; color a picture in the coloring book; write a letter to someone; write a thank you note to your teacher; create a fun rainbow food recipe.
Make Your Child a Player in the Production
Get your child involved in the responsibilities of preparing meals.
Encourage them to help plan meals by looking through cookbooks, searching online, looking at pictures on Pinterest, and reading magazines.
Pick a day of the week that the child gets to choose the meal. If you have more than one child, rotate through each child one per week.
Have them help prepare the grocery list and choose their foods while shopping. You can give them the task of choosing one food for each color of the rainbow, you can ask them to choose the yellow or green apple.
Allow them to help prepare the food. They can wash and peel carrots, snap beans, mix the pancake batter, fill the popsicle holders.
Get them to help set the table and clean up after dinner. You can also have them take on the role of the supervisor by passing the food and refilling the water glasses. When children are given an important role to play, it makes them feel like they are a part of the process. These behaviors will also encourage them to participate by eating what is made available
The Power Is in the Planning
Shoshana Chaim from Plant Trainers has some great ideas for prep and planning meals to help ensure your child is eating healthy fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains throughout their day.
Tips For Planning Breakfast:
Mornings can be hectic. Between getting ready for work and making sure your child is dressed and has everything they need for the day, breakfast can sometimes be an afterthought.
When in a rush, make sure your “go-to” meal is something quick and easy, without compromising on nutrition. Unfortunately, most standard “quick and easy” go-to’s are laden with saturated fat and sugar. When a child gets used to these sugary tastes early in life, it sets their taste buds up for unhealthy cravings throughout adulthood. Set your child up for a lifetime of success.
Overnight Oats is a quick and easy go-to. And what’s best, is it is EASILY prepared the night before, so all your child needs to do is grab-consume-and go!
Multigrain toast topped with avocado or peanut butter
Plant-based yogurt with chia seeds or coconut flakes
Whole (not quick oats) meal with natural maple syrup
Pressed for time: a piece of fruit and a handful of nut blend
Tips For Planning School Lunch:
When preparing your Child’s lunch, a couple of considerations need to be made. What lunchbox is best, and how will I keep the hot food hot, and the cold food cold?
When choosing a lunch box for a child, realize it is an investment that will be with them for a long time. I recommend the OmieBox, because it has areas for different types of food, and it also keeps hot food hot, and cold food cold.
If an insulated box is not within your budget, consider getting cold packs to put into your child’s lunchbox to keep food cool; and purchase a small thermos so you can keep foods like soups and chili’s nice and hot.
Make sure your child is part of the process. Make a list of healthy lunch options. Once you have made a list, sit with them and have them check off what they will eat, and cross out things they don’t like. This project will increase the likelihood of a return home from school with an empty lunchbox and a healthier and happier child.
Tips For Planning Dinner:
- Make a plan. Decide in advance what’s on the menu for each night. As discussed earlier, planning theme nights that are consistent with each day of the week can help alleviate some of the stress associated with planning meals. Mexican Monday, Take-Out Tuesday, Waffle-Fry Wednesday, Taco Salad/Soup Thursday; Pizza Friday; Spaghetti/Pasta Bar Saturday and Super Bowl Chili Sunday.
- Pick a window of time for meal prepping. This can be a fun family activity where you batch cook and store the grains/rice/pasta; wash, cut and shred the vegetables; pressure cook or prepare the chili or beans; and roast the vegetables or potatoes.
- Invest in awesome air-tight food storage containers, of varying sizes. These containers can be used to store your prepped foods for the next few days. All you have todos grab, reheat, plate, and serve!
- Work together with your children to make a grocery list. Challenge your children to come up with at least one fruit or vegetable for each color of the rainbow to add to your list.
For additional tips, the Meal Planning Mastery Course by Plant Trainers will provide some invaluable tips for planning your meals. While this is a whole-foods plant-based course, you can still adapt as you see fit.
The Dirty Dozen™ (and Clean Fifteen™) – When to Buy Organic
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) listed their 2019 Dirty Dozen™ list of the top 12 fruits and vegetables that should be purchased organic. Shop organic when looking for the below 12 foods, as they are the most likely to be grown using an excess amount of chemicals and pesticides. The Clean Fifteen ™ are foods that are safer to consume.
The Dirty Dozen™
- +Hot Peppers
The Clean Fifteen™
- Sweet Corn
- Frozen Sweet Peas
- Honeydew Mellons
As you can see, there are hundreds of ideas to get your child to eat more veggies. We only skimmed the surface. With a little creativity, you can help get your child on the path to healthier eating for years to come.
Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS
Compliment Your Body,
1441 Broadway #6087
New York, NY 10018
Richard Lehman, LMT, CSCS has over 15 years of experience in the fields of health and wellness and holds a certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. He owns and operates Compliment Your Body, LLC providing in-home and corporate / event chair massage to New York City and the surrounding Boroughs. Commitment, compassion, connection, and charity . . . experience the CYBNYC difference!