How I Got My Kids to Happily Eat Their Vegetables Without the Drama
If you can’t get your kids to eat their vegetables, there’s hope.
**I once had a teenager vomit into their hand at a restaurant because they had gotten themselves so worked up about having to eat some broccoli.***
So, yeah, you’re not alone.
Today, both of my kids are adventurous eaters at 7 and 9 years old. My son will eat onions (but only sautéed). My daughter, Abalone, loves Brussels sprouts. We called them “fairy leaf balls” when she was young. Because toddlers can be assholes with anything that might be good for them and if I called the Brussels sprouts she would surely know we were trying to kill her. When they were very young, Abalone refused to eat her vegetables without My Mechanic first taking a bite. And I couldn’t understand why one kid was fine with trying new things and the other wasn’t.
I was sure we were doomed forever to repeat the broccoli vomit incident but it turns out that Abalone has a disorder called Apraxia of Speech and her oral muscles and tongue had a very hard time manipulating food to be able to chew correctly. Once we got that figured out and she started speech therapy, we were able to convince the kids that trying new things is a really cool thing and mom swears she’s not trying to poison you.
Let’s look at things you might want to stop, or start, doing to get those future foodies off on their adventurous journey.
Here’s what you should stop doing:
- Thinking they’re too old to like vegetables. Let’s put the assumptions away for a minute.
- Making a big deal about eating their veggies. We’re going to be matter of fact, but also fun. But there’s no Men In Black coming to kidnap them as soon as they take a bite. When something is “good for them” it’s surely Mom Code for a conspiracy.
- Having a lack of patience.
- Begging them to eat.
Here’s what you should start doing:
- Introducing a variety of colors and textures (assuming your child doesn’t have a medical condition that they can’t eat certain things).
- Change the format.
- Modeling Behavior.
- Encourage membership into the “No Thank You Bite” Club.
Start when they’re young but don’t freak out if they’re 12 and hate tomatoes.
Building an appreciation for vegetables when babies are new to solid foods is the best practice, but you’re not too late if they are in elementary school or older. The tactics and tips I’ve learned can be used for 2 year olds through 12 and beyond.
When it’s time to introduce solids to your baby, start with the easy to eat stuff. Let’s not force adult food on a person who is growing in a world that is one giant lab experiment to them. But once they’ve got a handle on solid foods, mush up other things for them to try. And if they hate it? Well, this is all brand new to them. We offered a variety of foods to them many, many times. So much that Monkey stopped eating eggs for about a year unless he was at Grandma’s house (obviously Grandma wasn’t trying to poison him). I liked to follow the baby solid eating schedule at: Momtastic
Don’t Push The Issue.
Sometimes just backing off the pressure can help you and your picky eater be more open to hearing each other. Begging a child to eat or getting angry at them will likely make them more likely to question your motives and believe you’re trying to poison them.
Have a conversation with your older kids about what they don’t like about eating vegetables. Is it the texture? The flavor? The color – I mean, sometimes kids don’t want to eat GREEN food. If they are old enough to communicate their concerns, then work within their boundaries. Maybe they really hate broccoli but they love kale chips – hey, it’s a leafy green, work with what you’ve got, Mom.
Sometimes a taste experiment is in order. I convinced my then four-year-old Monkey to try a tiny bit of raw onion and then a tiny bite of a caramelized onion. He loved the cooked onion. And since then he’s been open to trying onions in other forms. You can try a raw vs. cooked experiment on all sorts of things. Tomatoes, broccoli, carrots.
Abalone only likes raw, crunchy carrots, but not cooked carrots. “They’re too mushy,” she says.
Monkey can’t stand Brussels sprouts. He takes a couple of No Thank You Bites and we usually leave it at that.
I’m willing to work within their boundaries if it encourages them to try new foods, even if it’s just one bite.
None of these tips will work if you only try them once and decide they won’t work. Get 100 no’s before you give up on that particular food. Your kids also need to know that you’re going to consistently offer new foods and expect them to at least take a bite of those foods.
I hate cottage cheese and most fish. But every year I still try some cottage cheese and the fish I don’t like to see if my taste buds have changed their mind. Still a big fat nope, but at least I’m willing to try. Modeling the behavior that you are willing to try foods that you might not like is another tactic to get your small humans to try new things. Another modeling example is doing your damned best to not say “I don’t like…..” such and such food. They hear you and will follow your lead. My kids know that I don’t like certain foods now, but I’ve also established a base line that they try new foods, they know what the expectations are in the house when it comes to meal time.
Grow Your Own.
Kids are so much more willing to try a new food when they’ve nurtured it from a seed or seedling and watched it grow right in their own yard (or balcony).
And growing your own food is the perfect opportunity to create another taste experiment. Let them eat a tomato from the store and then another from the garden. Let them experience the texture difference and taste difference between the two.
Click here for a post I wrote about growing food with your kids.
The “No Thank You Bite” Club.
And sometimes a kid would test the crazy scale on me when one week they’d love something and the next they’d refuse to eat it. My solution was “You have to take one bite.” And they’d cry and whine and throw their heads back. And I’d ignore them. And eventually they took that bite.
Membership into the “No Thank You Bite” Club is easy. If your child doesn’t want to eat their vegetables, or any “weird” food, encourage them to try just one bite. We call it a “No Thank You Bite”. We say, “OK, you don’t have to eat all of it. But you do need to take a no thank you bite.” Once they take their No Thank You Bite, I say thank you and drop it. After a few times that they’ve been offered this food and taken their No Thank You Bite I will then encourage them to take a second No Thank You Bite, eventually getting to however many bites as they are old. And if they genuinely don’t like something, well then one No Thank You Bite is all they will ever get to and we offer the things they do like, more often.
The “No Thank You Bite” Club is not an optional membership. It is a requirement in our house but I don’t beg them to try it. The rule is, you take a no thank you bite. That’s my expectation as their mom and I don’t mess around. And if they refuse to even take a no thank you bite, then they start with their veggies next time, with nothing else on the plate, until they take that bite. There’s no drama, I don’t beg, I don’t bother them over and over. If they ask if they can have anything else it’s , “Sure, as soon as you take that no thank you bite.” And they might huff and puff. I ignore it and happily eat my dinner.
Harsh? They eat their veggies, don’t they? And the veggies they eat are veggies they’ve told me they like. I’m not going to never ever cook Brussels sprouts for Abalone just because Monkey doesn’t like them.
(Monkey ate four Brussels sprouts just the night before I published this post. Apparently I cooked it how it likes it? Huh, no different than any other time.)
Change the Format.
Sometimes texture or visual aversions are why a child won’t eat their vegetables and changing the format of how the vegetables are presented is your only Mom option. These can also be called Tricky Tactics. Here’s some Tricky Tactics you might want to try:
- Put the veggies into a casserole
- Make a smoothie and stuff some spinach into a protein shake or some carrots into juiced fruit. (leave the pulp because it’s good for them. Frozen bananas are my secret ingredient)
- Cut things up really small if larger pieces are an issue.
- Mix the good with the bad. They like carrots but aren’t so fond of broccoli? Mix them together when offered.
- Offer just veggies, first, as the only thing on their plate.
- Just make shit up! This is when you call Brussels sprouts “Fairy Leaf Balls” or sprinkle some “Magic Cheese” (parmesan) on their veggies.
We’re trying to get the ball rolling, to get them willing to try new foods. If that means juggling your Fairy Balls around on the plate then do it. Sometimes you gotta make it fun and other times you have to just say to yourself, “OK, no big deal, we’ll keep offering the healthy stuff”.
But don’t ever just throw up your hands and say “Well they refuse to eat so I just don’t offer it anymore!” That’s the exact thing you should NOT do. That’s when you get a teenager vomiting into their hands at a restaurant because, “OH NO! BROCCOLI!! I’ll surely be poisoned!”