Getting kids to eat vegetables is like using your bare hands to pull teeth from an enraged alligator, only harder. Kids don’t eat what they don’t want and vegetables almost always fall into the “it’s yucky” category. They have no problem eating junk like chips, hot dogs, grilled-cheese, or pizza. But the moment a spec of green appears, their mouths snap shut like a steel trap and they won’t budge. Our kids are even willing to skip meals if there’s nothing on the menu they want.
As a parent, this is so frustrating. Just coming up with an idea for dinner is hard enough, never mind making it. By the time I’ve pulled together ingredients, made the food, set the table, rounded up the gang, and dished up plates, the last thing I want to hear is “Ewww, what’s that.” Even worse is the classic, “I don’t like it” when they’ve literally never tasted it in their entire life. Our Addy is particularly fond of this tactic.
Because it’s so difficult to get kids eating healthy, it’s easy to give up. We did. By the time Junior was three, he’d worn us down with so many dinnertime fits and tantrums that we threw in the towel. For a few months, we stopped pushing vegetables because we didn’t have the stamina to fight with him.
Eventually, we decided that Junior’s health was too important to let veggies go – we had to try again. This time, though, we had plan. And the plan worked! Within six months, Junior proclaimed, “I love asparagus” as he downed ten asparagus stocks in one sitting. We were shocked! Our parenting plans never work (at least that’s how it feels), but this one did.
And so, with no further ado, here are Will and Sam’s nine steps to get your kid eating vegetables:
Step 1 – Mentally Prepare Yourself
This won’t be easy. There will be fights. Food may get thrown across your kitchen. Your kids may go on hunger strikes. But it will all be worth it. Teaching your kids healthy habits now will be pay huge dividends in their future. Keep reminding yourself that, especially when things get tough.
Step 2 – Talk with Your Kids about Eating Veggies
Have a simple, age-appropriate conversation with your kids about the importance of eating healthy. Don’t overdo it – this step shouldn’t take much longer than a few minutes (you don’t want to lose them). You can start by saying something like, “Daddy and Mommy want to make sure you grow up really strong” and go from there. Make the conversation interactive by asking questions like “Do you want to be big and strong like Mommy and Daddy” or “How can you get stronger?”
In this conversation, let them know that your family is going to start eating vegetables more. Set clear expectations and rules. Our family rule is that you don’t get seconds of anything until you eat your vegetables (we’ll talk in a minute about how many vegetables each kid should get).
Step 3 – Serve Vegetables with Every Dinner
One of the keys to this plan is consistency. Your kids need to see vegetables popping up on their plate every day. And not just the same ones every night. Mix it up. I know that’s a lot more work, but it’s the best way of finding something they’ll eat. After experimenting with a wide variety, you can scale back down to serving just the ones that work best for your family.
Another benefit of mixing it up is that you might discover something you like. For example, Sam had never tried asparagus before we tried it with Junior. Now she loves it.
Step 4 – Eat Vegetables Yourself
Kids can sniff out hypocrisy from a mile away. If you aren’t eating vegetables, they won’t either.
Step 5 – Start Small and Work Your Way Up
If your kids haven’t been eating vegetables, you can’t expect them to pull a 180 overnight and down a whole plate full of them. So start small. In the first week, make a rule that they only have to take one bite and make it clear that they actually have to swallow that bite. After you have them taking one bite without a fight, move up to two bites, and so on. It may take a couple weeks per step, but they should catch on relatively quickly.
When you’re starting, you may have to resort to bribery. Lots of nights, we had to offer Junior a small treat in exchange for taking just one or two bites. As time went on, we phased out the treat. Now, we simply give him a small initial helping of food he really likes along with his vegetables. Then, we don’t give seconds until veggies are gone.
Be warned, this approach does take patience. At the beginning, we had a number of twenty to thirty minute stare downs with Junior. He didn’t think we were serious. He thought he could outlast us. But, we were firm and after a few days he understood that we meant business.
Step 6 – Work Up to the “One Vegetable for Every Year Old” Rule
As you up the veggie intake, a good goal to work toward is “one vegetable for every year old.” For example, Junior is five, so when we eat baby carrots, he’s expected to eat five before he gets seconds. Addy, on the other hand, is only two, so she only has to eat two carrots.
For larger vegetables like celery, you should chop them up into smaller pieces so the one-for-every-year-old rule can still apply. That way, your kids don’t feel like you’re making up arbitrary rules for each meal. For our kids, having a consistent rule made a big difference.
Of course, you’ll eventually want to cap the one-for-every-year-old rule. You can’t expect a 15 year old to eat 15 baby carrots at dinner time. You have to decide what works best for your family, but Sam and I have thought about capping things at six or seven.
Step 7 – Be Consistent
This plan only works if you are consistent. You need vegetables at every meal and you need to enforce the rules at every meal. If you aren’t consistent, the process will take a lot longer.
And if you do miss a day, it’s not the end of the world. Just be sure to get back on the bandwagon ASAP, or else your kids may regress.
Step 8 – Celebrate when you Find Vegetables They Like
Once you find a vegetable they like, it’s time to celebrate! You’ve been working hard to get them eating healthy, and it’s finally pay off. Now, you have a “go to” vegetable that you know will work every time.
As a side note, your kids may surprise you with what they like. When we started this process, I thought Junior would eventually vegetables, but I didn’t think he would ever like them. I was wrong. He now likes asparagus, broccoli, and sweet potatoes. He’s also willing to eat lettuce, carrots, peas, and corn even though they aren’t his favorites.
Step 9 – Be Willing to Accept They Won’t Like Every Vegetable
As a final precautionary note, you do need to be willing to accept that your kids won’t like every vegetable you put in front of them. After they’re eating veggies consistently, you’ll get a feel for when they really don’t like something as opposed to when they just don’t want to try it.
That’s it for Will and Sam’s nine steps to get your kids eating vegetables. What methods have you tried? Did they work or were you left frustrated? Tell us in the comment section below.