By Reed Mangels, PhD, RD
QUESTION: What are some ways to get toddlers to eat vegetables?
J.C., via email.
ANSWER: It is important to try to find ways to get toddlers to eat vegetables. Children who eat few vegetables tend to also eat a limited variety of vegetables as adults1. Adults who eat more vegetables and fruits seem to have a lower risk for many diseases2; promoting vegetables in toddlers' diets is a great way to help them develop healthy eating lifelong behaviors.
One of the simplest ways to get toddlers to eat vegetables is to eat them yourself. Toddlers love to copy parents, so if you eat mainly burgers and potatoes, it's likely they will, too. On the other hand, if you eat red pepper strips and broccoli florets, chances are that your toddler will at least try these foods. Similarly, peer pressure may work. Seeing friends or siblings eating vegetables has made some toddlers more eager to eat vegetables, too.
Toddlers have a strong need for stability they don't typically like new things. That's important to keep in mind when introducing a new food. Don't be put off if they reject it at first. Research shows that toddlers may need to experience a food six or more times before it becomes "familiar" and accepted3. As they get to know a food, they may smell it, taste it and then spit it out, or lick it. Some families find that a one-bite policy (you have to eat a small bite) works as children get acquainted with new vegetables.
Toddlers often don't care for the bitter taste of some vegetables. Choosing sweeter vegetables such as carrots, corn, peas, and sweet potatoes can lead to success. For other vegetables, one way to reduce the bitterness is to serve them raw or lightly steamed rather than cooking them for a long time. Low-fat dips (hummus or salad dressing) can also be used to mask the bitter taste. Research has shown that use of low-fat dips increased the acceptance of vegetables4. A light sprinkle of salt (by the parent or caregiver) can also help to increase vegetable intake, possibly because salt hides some of the bitter flavor5.
Children will eat more vegetables when they're hungry. Serving a plate of raw vegetables before the meal is one way to increase acceptance. One study has shown that when children were given vegetables before a meal, their total vegetable intake (from before and during the meal) was higher than when they were only served vegetables at the meal6.
Involving toddlers in choosing vegetables, at the store or a farmer's market, in growing and harvesting vegetables, and in preparing vegetables often increases their willingness to eat them. Even something as simple as putting grated carrot "hair" and cherry tomato "eyes" on a rice cake spread with hummus can make your little one more eager to eat carrots and tomatoes.
Some experts recommend a stealth policy adding finely chopped vegetables to favorite foods like tomato sauce or smoothies. This can work as a way to get your child to eat more vegetables, but it really doesn't teach them good healthy eating habits. You can certainly "hide" vegetables, but also try some of the other ideas for influencing your toddler's food preferences.
1 Nicklaus S, Boggio V, Chabanet C, Issanchou S. 2005. A prospective study of food variety seeking in childhood, adolescence and early adult life. Appetite 44:289-97.
2 Van Duyn MA, Pivonka E. 2000. Overview of the health benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption for the dietetics professional: selected literature. J Am Diet Assoc 100:1511-1521.
3 Anzman-Frasca S, Savage JS, Marini ME, Fisher JO, Birch LL. 2012. Repeated exposure and associative conditioning promote preschool children's liking of vegetables. Appetite 58:543-53.
4 Savage JS, Peterson J, Marini M. Bordi PL Jr, birch LL. 2013. The addition of a plain or herb-flavored reduced-fat dip is associated with improved preschoolers' intake of vegetables. J Acad Nutr Diet [Epub ahead of print].
5 Bouhlal S, Issanchou S, Nicklaus S. 2011. The impact of salt, fat and sugar levels on toddler food intake. Br J Nutr 105:645-53.
6 Spill MK, Birch LL, Roe LS, Rolls BJ. 2010. Eating vegetables first: The use of portion size to increase vegetable intake in preschool children. Am J Clin Nutr 91(5):1237-1243.