As adults, we know this simple truth: Vegetables are good for us. For those of us who are parents, here’s another: It can be hard to get our kids to understand that, and whether they’re picky eaters or not, finding ways to get them to eat more greens can be a challenge.
Luckily, there are a few tricks you can arm yourselves with to make sure your kids have a healthier and more balanced diet.
Be a Planner
Knowing that kids generally tend to eat more regularly than adults do – and that, often, it’s the time constraints created by a busy lifestyle that make it harder to supply healthy food options all the time – being prepared with quick, go-to meals or having healthy snacks on hand can help a lot. Plus, feeding your kids balanced snacks helps to regulate their hunger levels, and the balanced nutrients will avoid the blood-sugar spikes and drops that lead to hyper and then, inevitably, cranky children.
Pre-prepared snack bags of items like cut-up carrots and cucumbers, veggie and hummus cups, fruit slices, homemade popcorn, and granola bites will ensure that you’re always ready for any hunger attack, very much in the same way that meal-prepping helps grown-ups stick to a healthy diet.
Meanwhile, scheduling family dinner times with set meal plans, like themed nights on certain days of the week (Taco Tuesdays, anyone?), will help your children become accustomed to a routine, helping to build healthier eating habits over time.
Play with Your Food
To a health-conscious adult, a plate of greens can look pretty appetizing because you know how good it is for you. But to a child, even the most beautifully decorated salad won’t hold the same allure. That’s where creativity comes in. Healthy snack ideas like ‘Ants on a Log’, celery sticks loaded with peanut butter then sprinkled with raisins, or vegetables cut and arranged into fun shapes like dogs, turtles, or birds can make them more interesting for kids to eat.
If you’re in need of some inspiration, you’ll find plenty of accounts on Instagram run by mums who lovingly create lunchboxes for their children to give you some ideas. Check out @365daysofminimelunchbox, @bentomonsters, @llittlemissbento, @bento_mommy, or @healthylittlefoodies.
Sneak, Mix, and Blend
When vegetables are snuck into super-flavorful dishes that are kids’ favorites, they’re less likely to notice them. For instance, turn a mac ‘n’ cheese into a veggie-loaded meal by adding peas into the mix and making a cauliflower-based sauce instead of a traditional creamy cheese one. You can also sneak vegetables into lasagna sauce where they’ll be disguised and add chunks of mushrooms, peas, and more within the layers of the dish. Blend leafy greens into fruity smoothies, substitute half of the beef in a Bolognese sauce, meatballs, or kofta with finely-chopped mushrooms and carrots, or slip layers of thinly-sliced veggies into homemade pizzas made on gluten-free tortillas.
Serve Meals Family Style
Children often mimic their parents’ behavior, and serving family-style meals from big plates in the center of the table encourages them to eat a wider variety of foods. Make sure you’re setting a good example and practicing what you preach by helping yourself to all the different things on the table, especially the greens.
Bake Them into Desserts
Yes, you read that correctly; vegetables can make surprisingly versatile dessert ingredients. If your kids like chocolate mousse, make a healthier version using creamy avocado to thicken it up. If they love banana muffins, bake some zucchini into them as well. Thick, delicious chocolate brownies can hide a multitude of other veggie flavors baked into them, from zucchini and black beans to sweet potatoes, squash, and beets, while pumpkin-spice anything is almost always guaranteed to be a hit.
Get the Kids Involved
While hiding vegetables in meals can be a great trick for many kids, why not invite your children into the kitchen to cook with you at times instead? Not only will it teach them about healthy food and what goes into preparing it, but they’ll also learn valuable skills in how to cook for themselves and how to incorporate more vegetables into their meals as second nature as the years go by.
Make Sure They Taste Good
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but making sure your vegetables taste good with the help of seasoning, spices, or sauces can help keep your kids from getting bored. Why not skip the standard salt-and-pepper combo and try a braai spice or vanilla-infused sea salt on your veggie stir-fry tonight instead?
Start a “Just a Taste” Rule
Just one bite won’t hurt anyone, right? Even if your kids are super obstinate, enforcing a one-bite rule will hopefully get them to admit, sooner or later, that veggies aren’t that bad. This is all the more important to do when your kids are going through fickle food phases, helping them to avoid developing negative thought associations with certain foods from a couple of “bad” experiences.
If they don’t take to it at first, don’t give up either. Research has shown that repeated exposure to the same food can help children develop more of a taste for it despite an initial adversity. And, if you don’t force them to finish it (rather, keep your promise of asking for just one bite), and reward good behavior, you’re more likely to watch their tastes develop into liking – or at least being more tolerant of – veggies.
According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, using plates that featured illustrations of vegetables was effective in getting children to eat more of them. A group of 235 preschoolers were given either plain plates or segmented plates with vegetable illustrations like the one below to eat with. The children with plain plates ate 20.63 grams of vegetables per meal, while the children with the illustrated plates at 28.17 grams, or an increase of more than 36 percent (1).