It’s no surprise that parents everywhere struggle to get their kids to eat vegetables. In fact, here at Kids Cook Real Food, I hear often from our families that one of the biggest barriers to eating more healthily is that they have what they call “picky eaters.”
Picky eaters never seem to have trouble eating enough french fries or pizza. It’s almost always those doggone vegetables that cause the problem.
And a problem it is. Statistically, 90 percent of American kids aren’t eating their daily requirement of vegetables (which probably is not set high enough to begin with). To make matters worse, 25% of all vegetables eaten are potatoes, usually in the form of those “very nutritious” french fries.1
RELATED: I’m not saying to give up french fries completely! Here’s our favorite recipe for fries.
What if your kids could make a whole meal by themselves?
It’s totally possible for even the youngest children, once they learn the skills in the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse!
Why Is Eating Vegetables So Important?
That’s the million-dollar question, right? Why are vegetables this holy grail of parenting? We know our kids need a balance of nutrients and things like protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, maybe some fish or dairy if kids can tolerate it. But what makes vegetables so tough?
First of all, we know that kids’ palates are geared toward loving sweet foods, and they have a lot more trouble with bitter foods than adults, simply because flavors dull on the tongue as we age. Vegetables tend to be more bitter.
RELATED: Did you know that roasting most veggies makes them sweeter?
I believe as a culture we have also hurt our kids’ opportunity to love vegetables, because of all the highly processed, highly palatable junk food that’s available. That further trains our kids’ palates that everything should have an explosion of flavor — and yet, in some ways, be monochromatic as to what that flavor is. The more we let processed foods into our lives, the more we ruin our children’s opportunity to appreciate the full depth and breadth of the plant world.
But although it can be an uphill battle, eating those vegetables really is important. Vegetables make our bodies healthy in so many ways:
- Phytonutrients, plant compounds that we are just beginning to understand like cancer-fighting antioxidants and detoxifying cruciferous vegetables
- Vitamins and minerals abound across the many colors of plant foods we have available, and many of these can’t be found in strictly animal foods and are often synthetically fortified in processed foods. But we know synthetics are never as good as the way nutrients are packaged in nature.
- Fiber. Our SAD (Standard American diet, which is very sad) is severely lacking in fiber, which is high in plant foods, especially if you leave the skins on. We need fiber for our digestive system to run well and particularly to be able to excrete toxins we need to get rid of.
The bottom line is that with our processed foods, diet, and lack of vegetables, kids are getting sicker and sicker. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops that 1/3 of our teenagers are depressed or anxious.2 That type two diabetes (preventable, reversible) has increased in children 30% over a 10-year span.3 And that childhood obesity has more than tripled since the 70s.4
Don’t get me wrong: health is not all about weight. But the other metrics for health are very alarming. Kids are getting sicker at a much higher percentage and much younger, coming down with chronic diseases that used to only affect adults. It’s time to make a change. And vegetables are as good a place to start as any other.
Getting Kids to Eat Vegetables Isn’t about the Food
I remember a member mom telling me a story once. Her daughter, an extremely selective eater, was at a birthday party with a lot of other kids. In the hubbub, as mom looked over, she caught her daughter eating not one but two foods that she would never ever touch at home. The jaw dropped, and the mom took note. There was something about the environment or the positive peer pressure that got her daughter to eat things she usually would turn up her nose at.
In this case, it wasn’t the food, it was the environment. And, in fact, researchers have found that the environment of the plate makes a difference, too. Studying school lunch behavior, researchers found that kids eat different amounts of veggies depending on what else is on their plate.5 Now that research has proven what common sense tells us, that can help us figure out the timing and the environment of vegetables.
RELATED: Learning your child’s eating style will unlock how you should feed them.
Back when my oldest son Paul was in second grade, I brought some very healthy, very unique snacks as part of a presentation for his class. As the kids were served tiny amounts of crispy roasted chickpeas and other healthy treats. I was so curious to watch what they would try first, who would eat what, how the peer pressure would play out in the classroom.
I specifically chose small servings to not overwhelm them. And then the teacher walked around the classroom and tossed a handful of pretzel sticks onto every single plate. Argh! Naturally, that sabotaged everything I was trying to do. I was so frustrated.
However, think about your own kitchen table. If kids have their favorite chicken nuggets and french fries, or frozen pizza, or mac and cheese that you make because you feel like they won’t eat anything else, and then there’s one lonely piece of broccoli, or worse yet, an entire pile of any other green vegetable, what are the kids going to choose?
It’s not about hiding vegetables, saucing them, dipping them, smothering them, or tricking kids into eating them. It’s really about timing.
RELATED: Here are ten more strategies to get kids to eat more veggies without tricks!
“When” You Serve Vegetables for Picky Eaters Makes All the Difference
Think about it: what if the kids saw that one piece of broccoli first? Or what if we could build a habit for a lifetime that eating vegetables simply comes first?
This is the one simple habit that can truly 4x your child’s vegetable intake: a routine at the table called Veggies First. The earlier you can start this habit, the easier it will be to set.
Our family was blessed with a few years of an amazing nanny a few days a week. “Miss Leah” not only taught our little Gabriel Spanish and politeness and reminded him to say his prayers, but she also was a great cook and prepared nothing but healthy food for herself and for us. I was sad when Gabe started kindergarten.
We’ve been fortunate enough to stay in touch and hearing about Miss Leah’s new nanny fam just makes my day. She’s taken a lot of what she learned at our house and from Kids Cook Real Food and totally gets the little ones in her new nanny fam involved. She was telling a story the other day about how she would take the little ones on a picnic. And the three-year-old girl would get everything out and explain, “Veggies first!”
Because that’s the habit Miss Leah has set up. When you sit down to eat, you always eat veggies first. The kids don’t question it. They just do it. Interesting side note: They don’t always do it with their parents, because their parents don’t know about the routine. However, I do feel like this habit will stick with them for life somewhere deep down inside.
That’s how habits work, right? They become our normal, and we stop thinking about them and don’t question them. So how can you institute a Veggies First rule in your household? You just do it. You just say it. You remind your kids, “We eat our veggies first in the [insert your last name here] household.” You make it part of your family identity. “We Kimballs always eat our veggies first!”
Keep it positive. Don’t punish if kids forget, just remind.
And here’s the thing. We don’t need to eat our veggies first because they are the worst. We eat our veggies first because we want them to taste the best. Research shows that what we eat first when we’re hungry always tastes better than what we eat at the end of the meal. So you just explain to your kids that you want them to eat vegetables first so that they can taste all the amazing flavors nature has to offer.
One simple habit.
Allow it to take root.
Eat vegetables first.
A Vegetable Intervention to Get Picky Eaters to Eat More Vegetables
If you’re working with extremely selective eaters or very stubborn kids who would balk at a new rule about eating veggies first, here’s an idea for you.
You can control the timing of when the vegetables are served and the environment of the plate if you serve vegetables first with literally nothing else on the table. This doesn’t have to be something that you do always and forever, but it’s a great intermediate intervention as you’re attempting to create a new habit of Veggies First.
You can do this in a number of ways:
- Put out veggies and dip before the meal even begins.
- Serve a salad course and leave the main course in the kitchen.
- Serve a soup course and leave the main course in the kitchen. I love blended soups with straws for kids. The straw is another environmental factor that can help encourage more consumption of vegetables.
- Try a veggie tasting day. Serve two or three different kinds of vegetables or different preparations and formally taste them all as a family.
None of these have to make the meal take longer or take too much of your precious brainpower. At the end of the day, just serve veggies first. Then get out everything else. As always, no punishments or consequences if the kids don’t want to taste their veggies. Lots of positivity and lots of encouragement.
If your child has very few foods they’ll eat and they’re really specific, make sure you aren’t dealing with a deeper feeding issue before diving into picky eater strategies.
After a few days of Veggies First with nothing else available, who knows? Maybe they’ll be more more likely to accept a taste or two, and you’re setting the habit in their brains and bodies that we eat vegetables first in our family.
Related: Here are my best blended soup recipes.
- Blended Green Soup
- Salsa Soup
- Cheaper Than a Doctor’s Visit Garlic Soup
- Creamy Roasted Garlic Butternut Soup
- Curried Sweet Potato and Carrot Soup
Should You Bribe Kids to Eat Vegetables?
Short answer? No.
But let’s unpack that. In one particular study, researchers decided to pay kids to eat their vegetables. In that study, kids did eat more vegetables when they were paid to do so. The increased vegetable consumption tended to remain for a while after the payments stopped, but it didn’t seem to be a long-term fix. In general, most studies show that paying people to do something actually decreases intrinsic motivation.6
This is a slippery slope when it comes to vegetables. I want my kids and your kids to be lifelong vegetable lovers. Not just eaters, but enjoyers. I want my kids and yours to have a lifelong habit of eating healthy food, not just to get a few more green things down their gullets today, tomorrow, and six months from now.
I say it all the time, but parenting is the long game. So when we think about bribes and rewards for vegetables, we have to think about how these will impact your child’s relationship with food in the long term.
We experienced what seemed to be a great success with vegetables in my own family not long ago. My two little boys — Gabe, age 6, and John, age 9 — got incredibly motivated by Dr. Ana-Maria Temple’s Plant Points challenge. She challenged adults to get 400 plant points in one month. (A plant point is defined as any different variety of plants in one meal.)
My boys were averaging 15 to 20 plant points per meal and topped out somewhere around 40 as a personal record for one meal. They were running to the kitchen during dinner to pull out extra plant foods, eating additional greens that they wouldn’t normally eat instead of just the romaine hearts that they like best, and piling their plate high with such a variety of vegetables, it was exemplary. People on Instagram couldn’t believe it was true. I was a little shocked myself.
And then … they had 400 points. When the final tally came in, it was as if the vegetables dropped off a cliff.
Suddenly, the plates were back to normal, or nearly so at least. I might even say something like, “Oh, why not take some cauliflower for another plant point?”
And the boys would look at me and say, “Plant points don’t matter anymore, Mom. We hit 400.”
It was quite a humbling moment, but a stark example of how a reward or competition often only lasts as long as that external motivator is in place.
Now, my boys eat a wide variety of vegetables and have pretty mature palates already, so I’m not worried at all. And it was a fun experiment. But when you think about any sort of reward to get your kids to eat the vegetables, here are the risks you must keep in mind:
- External rewards may cause your child to always need an external reward. This is not sustainable for a lifetime.
- External motivation may decrease intrinsic motivation, which is what we really want our kids to have as they grow into healthy, independent adults.
- Paying kids to eat their vegetables may train their brains to believe that vegetables are bad or vegetables are really hard things to eat. If they weren’t, why would I need a reward to eat them?
- External rewards may decrease the enjoyment of vegetables for their own sake. I want my kids to appreciate and really love vegetables, not feel like they are a chore.
- A very common reward for vegetable eaters is a sweet or dessert at the end of a meal. When we make sweets the reward, we put them on a pedestal. The sweets become the trophy and the vegetables become what we have to slog through to get to our prize. You can read more about this in my dessert strategy post and Dr. Dina Rose’s interview.
If you are sliding down the slippery slope of bribes and rewards to help your kids eat better, there’s no time like today to turn around and begin clambering back up. You won’t have caused irreversible damage, but you definitely want to shift the habit to something more sustainable (like Veggies First, hint hint!) and begin to slowly or quickly remove those external rewards. They will not serve your children well in the long run.
More Strategies to Get Kids to Eat More Vegetables (and Enjoy Them!)
As we’ve seen, getting picky eaters (or kids in general) to eat vegetables isn’t really about what’s on the table. The timing, the environment and the habits surrounding vegetables are most likely far more important than what you actually feed your kids.
It can make a difference how you prepare veggies, but you have far more tools in your toolbox than that. Here are five more important points to remember as you work on increasing veggie consumption in your home.
Gathering for family dinners results in healthier kids.
Study after study shows that family dinners make a huge impact on kids’ physical and mental health. Teens who eat regular family dinners consume more fruits and vegetables.7
When kids come together with the family to eat dinner, that is where we build our habits and they see the example we set. A family dinner is the first and most important environment to consider when building healthy habits for our kids. Try hard to make it happen at least a couple of times every week, if not the rule instead of the exception.
Be a good example.
When it comes to eating vegetables, kids will listen much more to what you do than what you say. Even if you or your spouse aren’t excellent vegetable eaters yourselves, you’ll want to at least model an attitude of trying new things. Obviously, the family dinner table is the best place to model this.
Give agency and choices about what kids eat.
In many areas, from eating to learning how to read, kids perform better and feel better about themselves when they have a say in things. This just makes sense.
Human beings like to be in control of themselves. So if you can give kids choices when it comes to dinner, they’ll be more likely to enjoy the process and be open to trying something new. Try asking your kids to choose something from the produce section that they would like to try that week. Or, when you are meal planning, allow the kids to give some input.
At the table, when kids are old enough, be sure to let them serve themselves and choose their own portions. Even on a macro level, when I am serving my kids a new vegetable, I say things like, “Do you want a taste or a serving?” This makes it clear that I expect the kids to take at least a bite of everything, but the final choice is in their hands.
And it has to be said that we mustn’t force children to finish what’s on their plate. They need to retain that agency of controlling their food environment. If we try to take it from them, it won’t go well in the long run. Remember, we’re building habits for a lifetime of healthy eating, not just that meal.
Watch your words when it comes to new vegetables.
Imagine if someone was coming to visit a second-grade classroom and the teacher said, “Now children, I don’t really think you’ll like our visitor. But we’re going to try to make him feel comfortable anyway.” Or in the same situation, if the teacher looked at your child and said, “I know you’re going to have trouble when this visitor comes, so I might as well give up. You can just go out to the playground and play instead of enjoying the presentation.”
Both of those situations sound really strange and awkward. But at times, it’s what we parents do when we are introducing a new food to our child. It’s of utmost importance that we never assume our children won’t like something.
We need to build an attitude of curiosity and a growth mindset. Even if your child hasn’t liked a vegetable in the past, we don’t present it with words that assume they won’t like it today.
And like the second situation, we can’t give labels to our kids. Never call your kids picky eaters, because that lowers the bar for your expectations. Watch your language at the family dinner table as you are being a good example of openness to new things.
Be consistent. Serve vegetables often.
The most important part of parenting when it comes to pretty much every topic is to be consistent. Our kids need to have that habit of seeing vegetables on the table all the time; they need to know that they are expected to eat them (and in fact, that they’ll eat them first) day after day after day.
When trying to build habits, when trying to raise healthy children for a lifetime, we need to take the small, consistent steps in the same direction many times in order to wear the path down that will form habits right in your children’s brains. Don’t give up parents. You can do this.
Teaching Kids to Cook Is the Most Powerful Way to Get Kids to Eat Vegetables
Veggies First and wonderful habits at the family dinner table are a great place to start to get your picky eater to eat more vegetables. But we know through research and member stories here at Kids Cook Real Food that getting involved in the kitchen is even more powerful.
When kids are involved with their food and learn how to cook, they definitely feel a sense of agency in the whole process. They’re allowed to make friends with their vegetables without any of the pressure to eat them that the table sometimes brings. And kids who feel proud of their end result are more likely to wants to give it a try.
I can’t recommend enough teaching your kids to cook, even if it’s as simple as measuring a teaspoon of salt, to build the healthy habits they need to eat well now and for a lifetime.
One Easy Step: Serve Vegetables First!
It’s pretty clear in looking at my own life that habits are the king of what I do. Many of my habits are still in place from childhood. It’s the bad ones that start by accident. The good ones take intentionality.
I strongly encourage you to be intentional about this habit of serving vegetables first. Here’s how.
- Be consistent about always serving vegetables at every family dinner.
- Create a family culture with your words. “We eat vegetables first.”
- Be consistent about saying that you eat vegetables first.
- Be a good example and eat your vegetables first.
- In more severe situations, try serving vegetables first with nothing else on the table.
And be consistent. Habits are king and consistency is queen. Over time, you can build this habit of eating vegetables first for your whole family. This will build children who not only eat their vegetables but enjoy them.
Your family can be just like a reader mom. She told me about how she began serving three-course meals and always had a salad first. It didn’t take very many months before everyone in the family felt like it was very weird, almost not a meal, if they didn’t start with a salad.
This is how habits work. This is what you want for your children and your family. And this is what making simple consistent choices, like serving and eating vegetables first, can do for you.
Are you going to try “veggies first?” Let me know how it goes!
- Centers for Disease Control. (2014, August). Progress on Children Eating More Fruit, Not Vegetables. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/fruit-vegetables/index.html
- National Institute of Mental Health. (2017, November). Any Anxiety Disorder. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml
- Dabelea, D., Mayer-Davis, E., Saydah, S., et al. (2014, May 7). Prevalence of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes Among Children and Adolescents From 2001 to 2009. JAMA, 311(17), 1778–1786. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.3201
- Fryar, C.D., Carroll, M.D., Ogden, C.L. (2018, September). Prevalence of overweight, obesity, and severe obesity among children and adolescents aged 2-19 years: United States, 1963-1965 through 2015-2016. Health E-Stats. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity_child_15_16/obesity_child_15_16.htm.
- Ishdorj, A., Capps Jr., O., Storey, M. and Murano, P. (2015) Investigating the Relationship between Food Pairings and Plate Waste from Elementary School Lunches. Food and Nutrition Sciences, 6, 1029-1044. doi: 10.4236/fns.2015.611107.
- Loewenstein, G., Price, J., & Volpp, K. (2016). Habit formation in children: Evidence from incentives for healthy eating. Journal of Health Economics, 45, 47-54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhealeco.2015.11.004.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietietics. (2019, February 27). Family Meals Small Investment Big Payoff. Retrieved from https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/eating-as-a-family/family-meals–small-investment–big-payoff
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About Katie Kimball
Katie Kimball, CSME, creator of Kids Cook Real Food and CEO of Kitchen Stewardship, LLC, is passionate about connecting families around healthy food. As a trusted educator and author of 8 real food cookbooks, she’s been featured on media outlets like ABC, NBC and First for Women magazine and contributes periodically on the FOX Network.
Since 2009, busy moms have looked to Katie as a trusted authority and advocate for children’s health, and she often partners with health experts and medical practitioners to stay on the cutting edge. In 2016 she created the Wall Street Journal recommended best online kids cooking course, Kids Cook Real Food, helping thousands of families around the world learn to cook. She is actively masterminding the Kids’ Meal Revolution, with a goal of every child learning to cook.
A mom of 4 kids from Michigan, she is also a Certified Stress Mastery Educator, member of the American Institute of Stress and trained speaker through Bo Eason’s Personal Story Power.