This Ask A Naturopath question is answered by Naturopath Georgie Stephen.
Trying to get kids to eat vegetables can, at times, feel like an impossible task. Many kids will try anything in their power to avoid eating them – flat out refusal, throwing them off their plate/ tray, distraction techniques, excuses, or, at their worst, full blown meltdowns. Undoubtedly, you’ve probably tried every trick in the book to get more veggies into them – bribery, deal making, hiding vegetables in disguise in meals, maybe even begging! At a certain point, we just feel like giving up.
But the persistence is worth it, as vegetables are an important food group that should be playing a staring role in our kids’ diets, rather than taking a distant back seat. Unfortunately, recent Australian research found that less than 1% of our kids are meeting their daily recommended vegetable intake. Veggies are very nutrient-rich foods that contain an impressive profile of essential vitamins and minerals that are required to support optimal growth and development, as well as learning, play, and cognition. To add, vegetables are wonderful source of fiber, supporting good digestive health – a common complaint we see in many of the kids we work with.
To help your kids become more adventurous with vegetables and regularly eat them, we have to be prepared to play the long game – there is no magic solution and it won’t happen overnight. It requires daily commitment, persistence, and patience. The following strategies can, over time, help you to turn your veggie-refusing kids into joyful veggie-lovers!
Research shows us that it takes repeated exposures to a new food before children will accept them. The number of exposures needed is different for each individual child, but averages are around 10 separate occasions. Naturally, children reject new tastes and new foods as a protective mechanism, and their palate and taste buds are changing as they grow, making them more sensitive to new tastes at certain ages. Studies have found that the most important factor for whether a child will like a given food is the level at which the food is familiar to them. So keep serving up those veggies with every meal and snack, and over time this exposure increases their familiarity and acceptance of the vegetable.
Kids should be involved in as many aspects of meal preparation as is appropriate for their age and developmental stage. This allows them exposure to vegetables without the added pressure of having to eat or taste the food – they can touch them, feel their texture with their hands, look at their colour and shape, and build familiarity over time. Research also suggests this kind of tactile exposure increases acceptance. To add, being involved in the process helps them to learn more about the food they see on the table at meal times – what do the raw ingredients look like and how are they changed during cooking or preparation?
Children learn by watching others, especially their primary care givers in the home. If they see others around them readily eating vegetables, they are much more likely to be happy veggie eaters themselves. This is a form of role modeling that also serves to tell our kids, ‘this food is safe to eat – I’ve tasted it for you’. Fear of the unknown can often be a driving factor stopping kids from trying new foods, so showing them that
Buffet style serving, where all foods are served in the middle of the table so everyone can help themselves, promotes a number of helpful things that can increase our kids’ veggie intake. It allows repeated exposure to the food over many occasions, it allows for social modeling as a parent to show your children that you are happily eating vegetables, and it allows your child some level of control over what is put in front of them – starting with an empty plate is much less overwhelming than having a plate pilled up with scary vegetables. Encourage your child to take at least one piece of eat food served at the ‘buffet’ to put on their plate, and if they can, to have a taste. You can also introduce a ‘learning plate’ at family meal times, so if your kids do reject the vegetables from even being on their plate, the food can go onto the learning plate and the vegetable can be discussed during the meal time – what does it look like, feel like, taste like, etc.
Encourage your kids to use phrases like, “I’m still learning about this food” or “I’m not sure yet”, rather than “ick”, “yuck”, or “gross”. This shifts their mentality from a fixed mindset about the vegetable – e.g. ‘I don’t’, ‘I won’t’, ‘I will never’, to a more flexible frame of mind that promotes learning and openness – ‘I’m trying’, ‘I’m learning’ ‘I can’. You can also change your own language to promote this shift in thinking, for example instead of asking “can you take one more bite?” (to which the answer will inevitably be ‘NO!’) try saying, “you can eat it” or “you can take another bite”. It might not lead to instant results, but over time it helps your kids’ to believe that, in fact, they can do it!
In some cases, particular children may be refusing vegetables and/or other foods for underlying reasons that require professional support and thorough assessment to get to the bottom of. This might include discomfort or pain, digestive issues, oral-motor skill delay, sensory processing problems, learning problems, or nutritional factors.
For more information about any of the above strategies or to discuss the possibility of other underlying factors impacting your child’s ability to eat, contact the practice on 9890 1062 and ask to speak with our Naturopath, Georgie.