Getting Picky Eaters to Eat their Vegetables

Don’t give up! You can help supply healthy food for picky eaters with these top nutrition tips for children. 

Eating is one of life’s most enjoyable pleasures—yet, many parents struggle to convince their tots of this! Call it picky eating, fussy, selective, or just plain stubborn—young children aren’t always eager eaters, especially when it comes to vegetables. Parents try so hard to nourish those little bodies and minds with the most nutrient-rich foods, but are too often faced with a closed-mouth, tight-lipped refusal of a broccoli floret or spoonful of sweet potatoes. So, what’s a parent to do? Hang in there! There are tried and true ways to foster even the youngest child’s willingness to sample a variety of vegetables that will assuredly turn into a life-long liking—or even love! So, get your kids to try more healthy foods for picky eaters with the following guide and tips. 

Getting your picky kids to eat vegetables can be a challenge.

Picky Perceptions

Raising a healthy eater is every parent’s goal. Yet even the most well-intentioned, diligent attempts can fall flat. That may be in part due to expectations. Parents may worry that their child doesn’t eat enough, eats too slowly, or refuses to try new foods. Or maybe they’re concerned that their child eats only nuggets and macaroni or just one or two fruits, but no vegetables. Regardless of how a parent defines a picky eater, the concern is that a child’s diet may not be nutritionally balanced enough to ensure proper growth and development. After all, the current dietary recommendations for children encourage eating a variety of healthy, nutrient-dense foods that include a wide range of vegetables. 

Offer a rainbow of beautiful veggies and open your child’s world to a lifetime of healthy eating.

Potential Pitfalls of Picky Eating

Although picky eating is often viewed as a normal stage as a child grows and develops (it may be a way of asserting independence), studies show it can result in children falling short of their nutrient and energy needs, which may have negative health impacts. A review of studies published the journal Nutrients found that 10 of 13 studies showed significantly lower intakes of vegetables in picky compared to non-picky eaters. 

Low vegetable intake among children is an indicator of poor diet quality. If dietary differences continue into adolescence and adulthood, it could result in what researchers describe as “unhealthy or sometimes inadequate diets with potential adverse health consequences.” According to another study in Nutrients, nutrient intake by children identified as picky at age 3 were still evident at age 10. Although many of those differences were declining by age 13, vegetable intake was still lower. 

Try smooth vegetable dishes as early as possible with children, such as this recipe for Classic Tomato Soup.

Start Veggies Early

The earlier children are exposed to healthy foods, the better. Infants and toddlers who are introduced to a wide variety of foods, especially vegetables, are more likely to eat them, research shows. Birth to 24 months is when food preferences and behaviors emerge and are established. The period from weaning to eating at the family table and eating the same foods as other family members has significant impact on the likelihood of a lifelong healthy diet. Gradually familiarizing infants and toddlers by giving them opportunities to learn to like the foods that meet their nutritional needs, as well as seeing them enjoyed by the rest of the family, makes it more likely they’ll choose them again and again. 

Veggie purees are ideal first foods for baby. Research shows that repeated vegetable exposure in the first year of eating is the most effective way to increase veg intake and liking in infants. Start with single vegetables, like carrots or green beans. Organic single veggie purees, either homemade, or store-bought, are a great way to start your baby on healthy foods as you begin the journey of offering new tastes and developing preferences. As your little one grows, offer more variety of vegetable purees, including combinations to add to their expanding palate. 

Bring a colorful variety of vegetables to the family table. 

New Foods are Fun!

As your child grows, continue to expand vegetable offerings and introduce fruits. For young children, try two-ingredient purees to add complexity to your tot’s palate, and add pureed veggies and fruits to smoothies and baked goods, like my Peach of a Zucchini Carrot Smoothie, which calls for apple sauce, peaches, carrots and zucchini! As they grow and develop, keep introducing veggies. Every time you display a new veggie, do so with excitement on your face and in your voice as you entertain them with a song or made up story about the food. Don’t forget presentation! Cut veggies and fruits into fun shapes, arrange them by color on the plate or into a face or a flower. 

My Peach of a Zucchini Carrot Smoothie is a great way for tots to try new veggies. 

Persistence Pays

As appetizing and exciting as you make the introduction of those veggies, don’t be discouraged if your child refuses. It will likely happen. And happen again. And again. That’s the way they develop a familiarity, a liking, and eventually, a preference for healthy foods. As worrisome as it can be, research says to resist the urge to force your child to eat just one carrot or to use a bribe, like a sweet, to coax them—pressuring them is ineffective. They’ll grow just fine, mom and dad! 

Why not get the whole family—picky children, siblings, and parents—on board to include more vegetables in meals! Here are a few tips to get you and your tiny tot started on a plant-forward journey.

Include veggies in kids’ favorite dishes, such as this recipe for Vegan Mac and Cheese with Peas.

Tips to Get Your Picky Eaters to Eat Vegetables 

  • Veggies First & Repeat. Offer young children a taste of single vegetables purees. Even if it’s refused, offer it again at another meal. Continue exposing them to it, while slowly introducing additional veg purees. Lead with veggies, and gradually introduce blends that include fruits. As they grow and develop, try finger portions of a variety of softly cooked veggies with dips, and add them to favorite recipes, such as burritos, mac & cheese, and soups
  • Make it a Family Affair. All family members can model eating different vegetables. The family table is time to enjoy food and each other, which encourages little ones to join. Just the mere act of placing the vegetables on the table can help familiarize them to these new foods, thus increasing the chances they will give them a try—especially if they see you eating them. 
  • Have Fun. Little ones are more relaxed and open to new foods when we make it fun. Be playful and let them play with their food. But be sure to make eating a no-pressure time. If they refuse to eat that green bean, let it go. Next time…
  • Hang in There. Stay the course by patiently and creatively approaching meals with new veggies. Try new ways of presenting them, like letting them dip a cucumber in a nut butter or plant-based yogurt.  

Try these veggie-rich kid-friendly recipes here: 

Tofu Mushroom Tacos
Burritos with Refried Beans and Corn
Vegetable Stone Soup
Purple Power Blueberry Smoothie
Classic Roasted Sweet Potato Wedges

Written by Lori Zanteson

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