If there is one food group that kids tend to turn their noses up at, it's vegetables. Veggies—particularly green ones—have a bitter taste, which in hunter-gatherer times, often signaled "toxic" or poisonous. This could be part of the reason why most young kids find green veggies "yucky"—it could actually be a natural survival instinct. Kids also have more taste buds than adults do, which could boost the yuck factor even more. This is important for us parents to know, so that we don't panic when our kids reject them.
The truth is, even though vegetables are an important part of our diets, kids who have a very low vegetable intake likely still have a nutritionally adequate diet (assuming, of course, that they accept a nice variety of other foods). But many parents insist that their child must eat vegetables. If coercion techniques, such as bribing or rewarding, don't work, worried parents often turn to what is now a plethora of blogs and cookbooks focused on "sneaking" vegetables (and other healthy foods) into their kids' diets, for some peace of mind.
As a parent of a preschooler who now picks every hint of green out of his food, I get it. I understand the frustration and worry, and sympathize with those who resort to pureeing veggies into breads, muffins, and desserts. But if you regularly hide vegetables in your child's food, you may end up adding fuel to a fire that would have naturally gone out on its own.
As Brian Wansink, PhD, and author of Mindless Eating (which I highly recommend) mentions in a Parents magazine article, kids will catch on to you if you are sneaking veggies into their food. When a piece of zucchini doesn't puree properly and becomes visible in your child's favourite cookie, or if she catches you sneaking an orange pureed concoction into her pancakes, she will become suspicious. If she catches you in the act (which she eventually will) and learns that you are not being up-front with her, those "yucky" veggies are suddenly much "yuckier," and you've got a much bigger problem on your hands. "Now these veggies are SO gross that Mom had to hide them in my food," she may think.
According to Ellyn Satter's Feeding Relationship, your job as a parent is to serve a variety of healthy foods at appropriate and consistent intervals in designated areas (you're in charge of the what, where, and when of feeding), and your child is responsible for if and how much he eats. In other words, it is not your job to make sure that your child eats his veggies—it's his. You can also relax knowing that vegetables aren't essential for a nutritionally adequate diet. If your child has a varied fruit intake, this can make up for a low vegetable intake. Now don't relax too much, it's still important to continue exposing your child to a variety of vegetables every day, even though he may reject them. This will increase his chances of accepting them later on.
I always add leafy greens to our fruit smoothies and often pack extra veggies into our spaghetti sauce. There is nothing wrong with adding vegetables to a dish to boost the nutritional quality of it. As long as you're open and honest with your child about it and there's no sneaking around. Start early. My son has never known a smoothie to be without some kind of vegetable in it. He also helps me chop (with his plastic knife) vegetables to go into casseroles and sauces. If you expose your child to vegetables early, it is more likely that he will accept them as he grows older.
A good friend and I took our boys for smoothies the other day. Both boys see what goes into the smoothies and we don't hide the fact that they contain veggies. But this time, the boys were extra excited about their green smoothies, because my friend asked them if they wanted a "hulk smoothie" for lunch. This made an otherwise regular smoothie exciting for our boys. Brian Wansink agrees with this technique, mentioning a study in his article where 4-year-olds ate 50% more veggies when they were named something clever, like "Princess Peas" or "X-ray Vision Carrots." There is no trickery in renaming a vegetable something creative and fun, and it makes for a more exciting experience for your kids.
Toddlers and preschoolers can be really finicky when it comes to how their food is served. Lately, my son prefers all of his food separate. So, instead of mixing blueberries into his oatmeal like I used to, I now put them on the side. And instead of eating a piece of pizza normally, he now takes all of the toppings off and eats the crust first and then the toppings. Try asking your child how he would like his food served prior to serving it—"Would you like your peas inside your macaroni or on the side?" or "Would you like your spaghetti sauce on top of your noodles or beside it?" You will be amazed at the answers you'll get and, perhaps, the change in acceptability.
Similarly, experiment with how you cut veggies. For example, my son much prefers cucumber coins over strips these days. He also prefers pepper strips rather than chopped pepper pieces.
And let's be honest, raw veggies with some sort of dip are much tastier than plain. Make a homemade tzatziki sauce out of plain greek yogurt, minced garlic, lemon juice, and salt and pepper, and serve with peppers, cucumber, and cherry tomatoes; serve carrots and celery with hummus or ranch dip; and try serving steamed broccoli with melted cheese on top.
Instead of saying, "We are having steamed broccoli with dinner," try giving them a choice of veggie by saying, "Would you like broccoli with cheese sauce or raw veggies and dip?" By doing this, you are handing over some of the control (which toddlers and preschoolers crave) and allowing your child to decide what he is eating, while still ultimately being in control. I call this giving kids "structured control." My son often surprises me by saying, "Both Mommy!"
As messy as it gets and as frustrating as it can be, I still invite my preschooler to help me prepare dinner most nights because of all of the amazing benefits that I see coming from it. He will not only munch on veggies that I'm chopping up, but he's also become a whiz at throwing ingredients into a blender or food processor, and a master stirrer of all things. Involving your child in meal-prep has countless benefits. He will be more likely to sit down to family meals and will be much more likely to taste the food that he has had a hand in preparing. It gives kids a sense of pride and accomplishment, as well.
There is nothing wrong with serving the same accepted vegetable over and over again. If your child loves peas but rejects every other vegetable, serve him peas. But always serve one or two additional vegetables (whatever the rest of the family is having) alongside the peas, even if you know that he won't eat them. The more exposure your child has to a variety of vegetables, the more likely he will be to eventually take the plunge and try them.
If your child repeatedly sees you enjoying vegetables at family meals or during snack time, she will grow up learning that eating veggies is normal and healthy. I always tell my clients, "Eat the way you want your kids to eat," because we are their models. If your child consistently sees you leaving veggies on your plate or only ever eating one or two types of vegetables, she will have a very hard time widening her own palate. Try to have at least two vegetable sides at family dinners (both raw and cooked), with lots of colour.
You may want to check out Your Role When It Comes To Feeding Your Toddler/Preschooler, as well as My Top 10 Dietitian-Approved Easy and Yummy Recipes.
Feel free to come on over to my facebook page where I share family nutrition tips, picky eating advice, and lots of nutrition resources daily.