My fussy eater hates vegetables – what can I do?
When I tell parents I’m a Picky Eating Advisor, we often move pretty quickly onto the vegetable challenge! Most fussy eaters are not fond of veggies and there are some logical reasons why:
– Young children are programmed to enjoy sweet foods. Breast milk is (apparently) quite sweet. Many veggies are more bitter.
– Vegetables can be challenging texturally – they are frequently mushy or even slimy.
– It’s harder to contemplate something that is not consistent. A cracker always looks, feels, and tastes the same. Veggies are more likely to be different each time we encounter them. Even carrots, for example, can vary enormously in taste, texture, and sweetness.
Veggies are also ‘emotionally charged’. As parents we are bombarded with advertising telling us how important it is that our child eats x portions of this and y portions of that.
Eating variety and a range of nutrients is ideal, but it also puts a lot of pressure on us as parents, and in return can mean an emotional rollercoaster when our child is not eating according to convention.
In turn, a child can pick up on the emotion, which makes saying no twice as fun. The more invested we are in something, the more we can inadvertently set up a power struggle.
Do we want them to eat veggies? Although the answer is yes, it may be a long-term proposition. This is especially true for children who are really uncomfortable around food in general.
Looking at this as a long-term project rather than a quick fix can be a positive way to approach food and feeding. So, let’s look at strategies that build competence around food in general and veggies specifically:
Ways to build a love of veggies
1. Familiarity. The more often we see a food, the more comfortable we become with it. And yes, I appreciate you may feel like you’ve had the tomatoes on the table for years with no progress!
However, if I had to pick one of the biggest pitfalls, I see for parents supporting children to eat variety, it would be consistency and not persevering as they not seeing the results, they feel they should see.
Result normally equals eating, but that’s not the whole picture. The more fussy a child, the more comfortable they will need to become with a food before being able to have a taste.
If we only focus on eating we continually see failure, when in fact we may be making enormous progress as our child is becoming more and more comfortable with a food and building up to that first taste.
The more picky, the longer it may take, but this is a long-term project and if what we do makes a difference for our child it is absolutely worth doing.
2. Model. Veggie eating parents produce vegetable eating children. I know this is something you have heard over and over and may also not seem to be working. Trust me on this, seeing us eat with pleasure is critical.
Whenever we get chance, we role-model eating veggies joyfully. Are they there at snack time? Grab a baton of carrot and a cherry tomato and eat with delight. At dinner are you eating with the children or are you hiding them away until after they are in bed? I know a lot of veggie hiding parents
3. Make them appealing. My mother did the typically English thing for her generation and cooked veggies until they were mushy and limp (bleurgh). I still struggle to eat some of the ‘steamed’ veggies she prepares, and I love the greens!
Think texture and what will appeal to your child. For those that love pouches, it may be soft and smooth. For others it could be dry and crunchy.
Adding salt, butter, cheese, or ketchup, for example, may make them more appealing. If it’s half a pea in an ocean of ketchup I’d take that as a win To build confidence and comfort may take time and could take an ongoing crutch like a sauce or a dip.
4. Create interest. Passively serving veggies is an every day action and one that does help over time. However, interest and interaction takes it up a notch and will definitely support progress.
Often doing this away from the table or in a low-pressure environment makes it into a fun experience rather than one where our child feels they are in the spotlight.
We can do this as part of routines when shopping, cooking, prepping, and serving, or we can create opportunities to pay more attention to and interact with foods. Perhaps this is loading up skewers with veggies or making faces, for example.
5. Change them up. Prepping, cooking, or serving veggies differently can make a big difference. Think of the difference between mash, boiled potatoes, jackets, or fries. All potatoes but for many fussy eaters they are completely different foods when prepared in other ways.
My eldest refused pumpkin for years and then one weekend we were at The Food Show, and he scoffed a bowl of pumpkin soup and declared it delicious. He still loves it but done the “Simon Gault” way with Indian spices.
There are multiple ways to serve veggies and perhaps one of them is more appealing for our child. For example, thinly sliced and crispy roasted veg may tick boxes that raw or steamed ones don’t.
6. Anytime is good. We often think of dinner when we think of veggies. I advise that we serve them throughout the day. It can make dinner seem less pressured for both us and them, if the opportunity to eat veggies is presented throughout the day.
In fact, I usually feel snacks are better teaching times than dinners. Dinners are late and we’re all tired by then. Snacks tend to have a better rep, so using these to introduce veggies can be great.
7. Small portions. The smaller it is, the easier it is to contemplate! One pea is more manageable than a plate of broccoli. Paring things right back can be really helpful.
8. Sweetness can help. There are veggies that many picky eaters are comfortable with like carrots and corn.
Perhaps part of this is because they are naturally sweeter. We can also either make these sweeter eg. honey roasted carrots. Or, add sweetness to other veg.
9. Incorporate veggies. I’m not a fan of hiding – at all – but for many fussy eaters, incorporating veggies into other foods with their knowledge is far easier than eating them on their own.
Although we want our child to eat individual vegetables willingly, if we start by grating them into a mince dish, for example, they are still getting the nutrients and the flavour. We are also teaching them that dishes with veggies in taste nice.
Perhaps starting with beetroot in chocolate cake or zucchini in muffins (with no skin if green is a challenge) is a better starting point for some children.
10. Drink them. Fussy eaters often find drinking easier than eating. If this is your child, then possibly it’s a way to get some or more veggies rolling.
Smoothies that incorporate veggies are one way to start. Perhaps it’s a neutral coloured and tasting one like steamed cauliflower to start, that just disappears into a drink.
Or, maybe if fruit juice is accepted we can move to a V-8 type juice (maybe a mixture to begin with) to start the process.
If your child is eating no veggies at all, it will probably take time and a lot of patience to support them to take the first steps. Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it worth it? I’ll leave that for you to decide
Remember, as much as we would all love our children to happily tuck into veggies, and I believe it’s a great thing to teach them, fruit has many of the same nutrients. If your child munches on a range of different fruits, they will be getting much of the same fibre and vitamins as they would eating veg.
If you’d like support around veggie eating, please feel free to get in contact.
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/