From my collective research, and personal and professional experience with children, including my own toddler. There is a root to many parental frustrations that can be summed up in one phrase:
If you want a toddler to do something, they are probably not going to do it, and there is no way you can make them to do it. If they even have a tiny suspicion that you want them to do it, then they are definitely not going to do it.
So what does this have to do with eating vegetables?
Often, parents are very focused on getting their children to eat vegetables.
They're so healthy, right?
Or you personally love vegetables and want your toddler to grow up loving the same foods you do.
The trouble is, your toddler can sense that eagerness and if you add any pressure to the mix, they probably aren't going to touch their veggies.
Of course, vegetables are an important component of a healthy diet. What parent wouldn't want their child to love vegetables?
The trouble is, there are some major barriers to your child wanting to eat their veggies.
New foods can be challenging in general but vegetables tend to be more difficult to chew, more bitter-tasting, and less commonly offered than other foods.
On top of all of this, many parents will put unintentional pressure on their children to eat vegetables. Even the slightest comment can raise a child's suspicions about a particular food.
So how do you raise a child who loves vegetables? Here are some suggestions:
1. Be patient
Accept that it might take a long time, even years before your child will learn to enjoy vegetables. Most adults can think of the food they disliked as a child that is now a favourite at their table. Though, some children may always prefer certain foods over others and may never enjoy the same foods you do.
Toddlers have very sensitive taste receptors and may taste bitter flavours more strongly and avoid these flavours. Most poisons have a bitter flavour so it is hypothesized that this is why toddlers naturally avoid them.
2. Make veggies taste good
This might seem obvious but if you are simply adding some plain boiled broccoli to your child's plate, so they can have a healthy meal, they likely won't enjoy it (you probably won't either).
Here are some suggestions to make veggies taste better:
Add fat - fat is very important nutritionally but can also make foods more delicious. Add some butter, coconut oil, cheese, avocado or olive oil to your veggies to give them some flavour
Roast them - roasting vegetables helps to caramelize their natural sugars, completely changing the flavour from the raw form. Roasted veggies taste much better than boiled and hold onto more nutrients as well
Add herbs and spices - a simple spice blend or herb mix can bring fun flavours to otherwise bland veggies
Go for fresh, local and in-season - This is not always possible, but food does taste better when it is allowed to ripen on the plant and hasn't been sitting in a truck or grocery store
3. Don't hide them
It can be tempting to "sneak" vegetables into recipes, especially when your child won't even touch them.
There are full cookbooks dedicated to finding ways to hide vegetables. The trouble with this approach is that it decays the trusting relationship that is essential to building a healthy relationship with food.
If your child finds out you're trying to trick them into eating a certain food. There is a good chance they will become suspicious and might actually stop eating altogether.
Just because your kid won't touch anything green doesn't mean you have to give up serving veggies with meals. Continue to offer the foods that your child rejects without any pressure.
It can take a long time for them to actually taste some but at least the opportunity will be there.
If you're worried about food waste, just offer a few small bites on their plate or serve meals family-style and allow them the option of trying some of everything. Try offering them food in new ways each time you offer it. If they always turn up their nose to cooked carrots, maybe they will like them raw or cut into star shapes or roasted with cinnamon and coconut oil.
Avoid short-order cooking by preparing a separate meal for your child. Learning to eat what the rest of the family is having is a part of growing up.
5. Stop prompting
Encouraging your child to "just take two more bites" can backfire quickly.
It can be so hard to avoid as a parent but any form of pressure at the table can make the entire meal an uncomfortable experience for your child.
Try to let your child do the work of eating and avoid commenting on their eating.
Even praise about food eaten at the table can be perceived as pressure.
Congratulating your child for their ability to dip their cucumbers goes a lot further than praising them for eating them.
6. Read about veggies
Reading about and looking at pictures of vegetables in books can help increase the likelihood your child will try these foods. This counts as exposure to vegetables.
7. Play with veggies
Sensory experiences can be an impactful way to encourage toddlers to feel comfortable around new foods. There are several steps to eating and feeling comfortable touching a vegetable can be a first step toward actually tasting it.
Here are some ideas for playing with veggies:
Use carrot sticks or broccoli as a "paintbrush" with vegetable puree "paint"
Cut up slices of cucumber in a bowl of water
Hide toys in a bowl of spiralized veggies
Explore the inside of a squash
Get their help peeling onions, peas, and edamame
8. Accept that your kid doesn't care if vegetables are healthy
Research on child food preferences has found that telling your child that a food is "healthy" or "good for them" actually makes them desire it less. Focus on subjective details about food "the peppers are red" rather than objective ones "the peppers are yummy and will make you strong"
Role modelling the eating and enjoyment of vegetables is the most important factor. If vegetables appear regularly on the family table and your toddler sees you enjoying them, they're more likely to enjoy them (one day) as well.
10. Make mealtime enjoyable
Take away any pressure to eat. Any form of pressuring a child to eat the food that you have offered can take away from the pleasure of mealtimes, disregard your child's own hunger level and taste preferences and actually cause them to be less likely to eat. Stick to your role of deciding the what, when, and where of mealtimes and let them decide how much and if to eat.
Want more info on raising a toddler who is a joy to feed? Learn more about the Your Nourished Toddler nutrition program here.