Everyone has a theory on how to get kids to eat their vegetables.
Maybe you’re old school and face off with your kid every night, bagging him to clean his plate until he’s still at the table an hour after dishes are cleaned and dinner is packed up...
... Or maybe you’ve been just a bit too lenient with your kid, letting him pick what he wants off his plate and not pushing him to try anything new until he’s ready (which might be never).
Either way, it’s a struggle—and you end up with wasted food and kids that won’t budge for every. Single. Meal.
I can’t remember when I stumbled on the solution for getting our firstborn to eat his vegetables. It probably sparked in my head one night after throwing out another half-eaten plate and worrying that he would grow up nutritionally deficient or picky. While I tried lots of methods, this one certainly worked for us—and your mileage may vary, of course.
But before I get to this not-so-magical method, I highly recommend taking a few extra steps with how you approach vegetables with your kids to increase your chances of success.
Prep veggies so they actually taste good
Good gracious, I’ve made mistakes with this rule. I’ve made Brussels sprouts that tasted sour, green beans cooked until they turned grey, and broccoli roasted to the point of charring (I swear, not every meal at our house looks like this). If you wouldn’t want to eat it, your kid won’t either.
Just make vegetables that taste good, and your kids will be so much more likely to try them. If you’re on a ketogenic diet, it’s even easier because you can use plenty of fat and salt to make even the most intimidating veggies taste a hundred times better. And if you’re like me and make the occasional cooking mistakes, just look up how to roast, steam, or stir fry veggies to your liking. You already have an advantage over low-fat-loving parents who force their kids to eat plain vegetables with every meal.
Eat veggies with EVERY meal
Consistency is key for building healthy habits. If your kid realizes he’s going to have to face vegetables every time he sits down to eat, he’ll be curious to try them at least once in a while—and he’ll know something’s not quite right if he sees a plate without much color on it. This way, they’ll always be ready when he is.
Don’t introduce too much at once (and have a few standbys ready)
We learned quickly that our son has an obsessive love for tomatoes—but we try not to eat too many of them ourselves, and we couldn’t possibly serve them at every meal. As we started giving him new veggies to try, though, I’d usually keep a tomato on hand in the event he didn’t like what I served. That way, he could have a veggie he enjoyed at the next meal and wouldn’t feel pressured to try something new every time he sat down to eat.
Why the next meal? We didn’t want to train him into thinking he’d get rewarded with a “good” vegetable every time he rejected a “bad” one—because in a ketogenic family, even veggies can be an incentive. ;)
Reframe the way they think about vegetables
Never discuss eating vegetables like it’s a chore. Instead, get your kids thinking that they’re the secret behind why Mommy/Daddy/Batman/whoever they admire are so big/strong/smart. Veggies are the source of everyone’s super powers—so if they want to get super too, they need that magic in their tummies.
Yes, it’s a little silly, but kids get meaning from a creative story as much as adults. If they can see their veggies as a superhero sidekick in the 3D comic book of their lives, it can only do good.
Don’t force it (and let them get a little hungry if necessary)
Yes, I’m one of those parents that will let their kid “starve”—and if you’re an intermittent faster, you know that skipping a meal isn’t going to hurt your kids. Tell your kids in a matter-of-fact way that this dish is what you prepared, and they can choose to eat it or not—but you’re not giving them any more food after the meal is over. A little bit of deprivation can go a long way toward changing their attitude about veggies (much more than preparing a special plate of something else for them out of fearing they’ll starve).
Nobody says this enough: when you kids try vegetables (or finish a whole serving), tell them they did a good job. No need to lay it on too thick, but express some measure of gratitude and delight.
As adults, we’ve been eating veggies for so long that it’s easy to do it without thinking. When kids can make the choice to do it too, though, it’s a whole new leap for them—so tell them they’re doing a great job!
Now you’re primed to convert your kids to the green side. Ready for the super magical method for getting kids to eat their veggies?
It’s stupidly simple:
Serve them their vegetables first.
No other food items on the plate.
Once they eat a satisfactory amount, they can ask for seconds or continue with the rest of the meal.
The method changes depending on the vegetable. If it’s a vegetable they already know and enjoy, they have to finish the whole portion. If it’s a new vegetable (or method of preparing it), then they need to take at least three bites before getting the rest of their food (use your discretion). When it’s a new vegetable, I also don’t overload my kid’s plate so we end up with less wasted food in the event the new veggie is a dud.
Now my firstborn is a little older and open minded enough to get all his food groups on his plate at once—but in all honesty, it took a solid year of serving his veggies this way before I could serve his plate without the veggie course first.
And even still, on the days when I get more experimental with cooking veggies, he’ll still have to try them before eating everything else. Again, your mileage may vary... but this method has made him much more likely to try veggies because the rest of the meal comes as a natural reward.
What not to do
In this phase of experimenting and whittling down this not-so-magical veggie method, I’ve discovered a few approaches that just don’t work consistently (though can still be used occasionally):
Don’t “hide” veggies in your food
Sure, you can occasionally blend them into smoothies, soups, and sauces—just don’t do it every time. The goal is to get your kid to appreciate the flavor and texture of veggies, which they can’t do if they don’t even know what they’re eating.
Don’t get gimmicky
Call me lazy, but I have not once arranged my kid’s plate to look like a face, used cookie cutters to reshape foods, or otherwise made a game out of eating. Go for it if you have the energy, but to me this approach is exhausting and unsustainable.
Don’t doctor them up
I like bacon wrapped asparagus and breaded zucchini spears as much as the next person—and perhaps these prep methods are a good way to introduce new flavors to kids. For everyday meals, though, I prefer to keep veggies simple so kids can actually taste and develop an appreciation for them. I would only use this approach for older kids that are set in their dietary habits and don’t eat enough veggies to begin with.