Once upon a time, I was a mom to one veggie-loving toddler who ate everything and I thought I knew it all. I had everything figured out, and my son’s wide palate was proof positive that what I was doing worked. In some ways, I was right. He did and continues to love fruits and veggies. The way I introduced fruits and veggies as just part of our daily eating habits worked for him. But after my daughter came along, with a completely different personality and a stubborn streak bigger than I had ever seen before, I realized that there just is no one-size-fits-all solution to getting kids to eat their veggies. All kids are different.
While both my kids love fruits and veggies, Will remains my adventurous eater. Paige is more choosy. She’s not picky per se, and loves fruits and veggies. But she has some foods she refuses to touch — like lobster, for instance (but, believe it or not, it’s an ideological refusal. Yes, at age 4 1/2) and pungent cheeses. There are days when Paige loves bananas and other days where she won’t touch them. She prefers plainer brown or white rice to risotto. And given the choice, she’d happily have a hot dog or grilled chicken instead of dessert.
That last one has me baffled.
Still, I am often asked for tips on getting kids to eat their veggies. Whenever a parent learns that I am a food writer and recipe developer, their eyes light up and they lean in eagerly asking, as if I hold the holy grail of getting kids to enjoy vegetables.
I used to share some standard tips — shop the farmers market, go to a pick-your-own farm, let them choose in the grocery store, cook with them, try cooking veggies a different way, grow some veggies together — but these days, I’m over it. The bottom line is that there is no magic solution to get all kids to suddenly crave broccoli and adore asparagus. I can’t impart a pearl of wisdom for your kids, because it doesn’t exist. Yes, I can share these tips that work for some kids, but it’s not what you really want. I know what you’re looking for — it’s that instant gratification of solution that just works, changing everything in one swoop.
But much like weight loss, learning to like any food is a process that takes persistence, dedication and having a certain energizing belief that it will work. If you talk yourself or them out of liking veggies, then chances are they won’t like them anyway. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy like that. But by the same token, even if you think it will work, for some kids it just won’t. For some kids, there are deeper reasons at play that stop them from loving veggies. As I said, there is no magic answer to getting kids to eat their veggies.
Of course if you want to know why my kids like fruits and veggies, the best answer I can give is that they just do. Since they started eating solids, it was an expectation that they would eat fruits and veggies. I never wavered from that and never thought that they wouldn’t eat something. Most of all, I never said “you aren’t going to like this” or “it’s okay if you don’t like this”. For them, fruits and veggies are a natural part of their diet. There are plenty of nights in the dark days of winter where I just don’t feel like cooking and toss together pasta, Romano cheese, olive oil and whatever veggies I have on hand. The kids rank that as one of their favorite meals. Salads? They are another favorite.
Eating veggies in my house isn’t a process. I don’t have to beg them to do so. Veggies have been a huge part of their diet their whole lives, so they aren’t scary or something to be avoided. So I guess the secret is that my expectation has always been that they would eat their veggies — and they do.
This worked for me. For us.
All that said, we aren’t without our share of dinnertime issues. There are nights where all my daughter (remember, she’s 4 1/2) wants is salad — and she skips everything else. There are nights when Will’s appetite has him requesting thirds. There are nights when I make truly hideous dishes (aka recipe testing gone wrong) and there’s just nothing that any of us want. We roll with it — when Paige only wants salad, I require a few bites of something else on her plate too. When Will asks for thirds, I consider how much he’s eaten before responding (if the answer is a lot, then I say no). When the food is just bad, I break out something else or phone in an order.
And in case you are wondering, there are no forbidden foods for my kids. Sometimes, we have dessert (though my daughter politely declines more often than not). Sometimes, we have breakfast for dinner. I keep a cookie jar stocked during the school year for an after-school treat. And fast food? Yes, they eat that sometimes too. But most often, it’s a home cooked meal with 2-3 servings of fruits and veggies for dinner. That’s just our norm.
This works for my family. It doesn’t mean it will work for you. You need to find what works for your kids. Be persistent. Believe. Keep trying. And hopefully, your own method will pay off too. Even if they never enjoy all veggies, relish in the ones they do enjoy. Celebrate them. Push the envelope to get them to try more. Keep at it, and I hope you find the solution for your kids.
So, I am sorry if you ever asked me “How do you get kids to eat their veggies?” and I couldn’t give you that magic answer. But the answer doesn’t exist.
Sarah Walker Caron is a cookbook author, freelance writer and founder of Sarah’s Cucina Bella. Her latest cookbook is The Super Easy 5-Ingredient Cookbook, published by Rockridge Press, which focuses on quick, easy, from-scratch cooking for busy people. A single mother to two kids in middle school, Sarah loves nightly family dinners, juicy tomatoes plucked fresh from the vine and lazy days on the beach. She also adores reading and traveling.