How can I get my baby/kids to eat more vegetables? How do I get them to like eating vegetables? I'm asked about this all the time by parents I meet on Instagram, Twitter, FB and IRL.
Like maaany many parenting conundrums, of course the answer is there is no 'answer'.
BUT that doesn't mean there aren't smart approaches we can consider - simple little strategies that might just help, whether you have a toddler/older baby who's a bit veg-averse, or a younger baby who likes them right now...but you're wondering if it's gonna last.
Since it's such a hot topic, I've read around quite a bit and have come across various theories. I'm going to tell you about three super-simple approached that I like the sound of and reckon could have the potential to address veg-aversion more effectively than hiding vegetables in sauces, disguising them with batter/breadcrumbs/cheese/pastry etc, or calling them something else so the kid eats them.
Why? Because none of that really solves the problem, just delays tackling it. And it probably means more kitchen faff for the parents which is never a good thing. The holy grail is surely having a little person know they're eating vegetables, and enjoy them for what they are.
[Side note: I'm not talking here about seriously picky eaters/kids who are anxious around food. I take my hat off to any parent working hard to nourish a child who is anxious or unhappy around food/certain food. Some childhood food aversions are really complicated and I'm not trying to over-simplify. If blending a bit of something green into a pasta dish while the little one's not looking is the only way, R.E.S.P.E.C.T.].
The three approaches I'm sharing here have something in common: they don't make vegetables feel 'better' than other foods. My instinct tells me emphasising the fact a particular food is good for you/healthy is probably not super useful in a parent-child feeding relationship, because it adds an emotional layer to food that could confuse a little kid. I think it's better to describe a vegetable (or any other food you'd like your child to eat) as tasty and interesting...and maybe crunchy, squidgy, warm, crispy, chewy, etc...then act like you really don't mind whether they try it or not, the inference being they're missing out on something pretty cool if they decline. Breezy. No pressure.
As you know I'm not a psychologist or a nutritionist (although I am enrolled for a Uni course early next year that will get me onto that path, whoo), and wasn't involved in any of the trials/academic studies mentioned here. I've checked them out as best I can but if you know about any of these experiments please tell me in the comments.
Three easy ways to get your kid to eat and enjoy vegetables, according to the experts:
1. SERVE THE VEGETABLES FIRST, BY THEMSELVES. There's some evidence that offering the vegetables solo, before the main meal, can be a gentle way to encourage consumption. Because the baby/toddler is hungry, and there are no other foods on the plate to distract attention. A professor at the University of Minnesota suggests that putting vegetables on a busy plate could mean unwittingly putting our broccoli in a competition it's unlikely to win. This approach seems a pretty interesting hack/short-term solution to me, or a low-stress way of introducing new vegetables a baby might not be so familiar with. The approach was tested in U.S. school cafeterias and seemed to work: click here to read the news story about the trial
2. SERVE THE VEGETABLES WHOLE. This sounds too good to be true but there's new evidence from an Australian university suggesting that small children may eat a greater amount of a vegetable if it's visible to the child in its natural serving size (e.g. a whole small carrot, a biggish floret of broccolli, a whole new potato, a whole tomato) because of psychological phenomenon called 'unit bias'. Details here of the Aussie study - it found little kids ate more raw carrot if they were given a whole small raw carrot vs. diced-up pieces. Note: I've read elsewhere that unit bias isn't particularly significant until a child is about three, but I think this approach is interesting nonetheless: click here to read a news story about the trial (soz it's a Daily Mail link...).
3. SERVE VEGETABLES IN SHARING DISHES. This one's about the social side of eating. Babies learn what's normal by watching, and learned behaviours can stick with a child throughout childhood. Letting the child choose their own vegetables from a bowl on the table that everyone else picks from can help in two ways: first, it gives them some 'control' over what they're eating. Babies and little kids have very little in the way of decision-making/control really (possibly why food can become a battleground in some families), so letting them control what goes on their plate could be a good thing. Secondly, if they see people they love and respect eating the stuff in the bowl then eventually they might just join in. It's called social norming. If you're interested in this approach I highly recommend a read of Bee Wilson's brilliant book, "First Bite, How We Learn To Eat". She covers all sorts of things, including this. It's well worth a read.
What do you reckon? Worth a try? Let me know what you think in the comments! x