Every morning I purposefully pack a serving of vegetables into my kids’ lunchboxes: carrot sticks, cucumber slices—nothing fancy.
Every afternoon, I open those lunchboxes back up and find most—if not all—of the vegetables still sitting there.
I remember when my son was 1 year old and he happily gobbled up the pureed kale and brown rice cereal I made for him, and I wonder where I’ve gone wrong. Why don’t my kids like vegetables?
Deborah Malkoff-Cohen, a registered dietician, reassures me that my children are in good company. “As kids get older, it’s natural in their development for them to be pickier,” she says.
But that doesn’t mean parents should give up on encouraging healthy eating habits.
How many servings of vegetables should kids eat?
Malkoff-Cohen recommends taking a holistic look at what a child is eating over the course of several days before getting too worried. Even if they go a whole day eating nothing but carbohydrates, servings of other foods in the days before and after can round out their diet.
And while vegetables provide fiber and lots of different vitamins, the truth is all of that can be found in fruits as well—which tend to be an easier sell, since they’re sweet. Bell pepper is a great source of vitamin C, but so are strawberries. Green beans have vitamin K, but so does kiwi.
In other words, if my kids are eating the fruit I’m sending to school with them, the fact that they’re barely touching the vegetables doesn’t necessarily mean their diets are lacking vital nutrients.
Rather than following the one orange, one green rule that my baby food books recommended, I should provide my kids with lots of opportunities to eat vegetables and fruit, and not panic if it seems like they’re only taking me up on the fruit offerings.
How to Get Kids to Eat Veggies
Keep a relaxed attitude during mealtimes.
A surefire way to get kids to not eat vegetables? Putting on the pressure. “The reaction is to get defensive,” Malkoff-Cohen says. Kids are more likely to try new foods when mealtimes are relaxed.
There’s also no need to hide the vegetables, or to sneak them in—this can lose kids’ trust. It’s fine to puree a few vegetables into the tomato sauce, or to add a bit of butternut squash to the mac and cheese, but no reason to keep it a secret.
Here are some other ways to present vegetables that can make them more enticing:
Serve them with dip: hummus, guacamole, or whatever salad dressing your kids prefer. The act of dipping a slice of carrot, celery, or bell pepper is a more sensory, kid-friendly experience than spearing a bite of salad with a fork.
Cut them into fun shapes: If kids want to grab it with their fingers, they’re more likely to take a taste. You can make radish flowers or carrot hearts. This might be too much work for the everyday lunchbox, but could make a fun addition to a potluck or a picnic in the park. Or check out these veggie cutters for a quick way to cut fun shapes.
Add them to soups: Most kids will take a few cooked carrots in the chicken soup they love, and might even be willing to try some small pieces of zucchini. You could also puree the vegetables in the soup for a creamy option.
Air fry them: Test out a healthier version of fries or potato chips first. Then try other veggies. Use a mandoline to slice up other cylindrical vegetables like sweet potatoes, beets, or zucchini to make veggie chips that pack the same satisfying crunch. You can also dip carrot sticks in egg and bread crumbs before frying them up for some extra flavor.
Do a taste test: Tweak a recipe a couple of different ways and have kids vote on which they prefer, or see if they can guess a carrot’s color when they eat it with their eyes closed.
Take advantage of screen time: I find that kids are happy to reach out and munch on lots of different things when they’re on the couch watching a movie. I usually serve a plate of veggie sticks as a starter while we wait for the popcorn to pop.
Get kids involved in meal prep.
Ask for your kids’ input when meal planning, and take them shopping with you. Send them on a hunt for all the red fruits and vegetables. Visit a local farmer’s market and see what the vegetables look like with the dirt still on them. Better yet, grow a few veggies of your own if you have the outdoor space, or dedicate a window planter to edibles—mint and stevia are fun leaves to chew.
Hone your pitch.
Encourage your child to eat their veggies based on their age and interests. Do they want to be strong like a superhero, or grow big like a dinosaur? Some of the biggest dinos were vegetarian, and spinach helps you build muscle. Vegetables strengthen your eyes and make your hair grow. Older children can learn about the difference between soluble and insoluble fiber, and how different nutrients support brain function.
Support with supplements, as necessary.
Unless your child is a super star at the table, a multivitamin probably isn’t a bad idea, although it’s always preferable to get vitamins and minerals through foods instead. Malkoff-Cohen recommends researching a multi with bioavailable vitamins that are easier for the body to absorb. And if you have any questions or concerns, seek out the advice of your child’s pediatrician or a nutritionist.
Absent any real medical issues, there’s no reason to give kids nutrient drinks like Pediasure, which contain a lot of sugar. Not only does this promote tooth decay, it fills kids up so they are less likely to eat other foods.
“Any vegetable you can give a day is a win,” Malkoff-Cohen says. So start slow, keep trying, and don’t stress it.