Becky Dickinson reveals the smartest ways to get your little ones to eat their vegetables
It’s an age-old struggle and a familiar source of angst to anyone who has ever uttered the words ‘eat your veg, or there won’t be any pudding’. Getting children to eat healthy food, especially vegetables, can feel like a never-ending battle.
But according to registered dietician and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association Lucy Jones, fussy eating is a normal stage of development. “It is thought to be an evolutionary safety precaution against eating poisonous berries, for example,” she says. “One study found that 50% of parents labelled their 19-24 month olds as ‘picky’.”
Fussy eating is by no means restricted to the toddler years, causing many parents to resort to measures such as ‘hidden vegetable’ sauces, or using dessert as a reward.
But while bribery and subterfuge may sometimes seem like the only options, there are other more palatable ways to help your child enjoy food. So here are some tried, tested and tasty ways to encourage them to eat something new.
Helping children to grow their own food is a great way to get them to eat it. While living the good life may not always be feasible, especially in London, there is still plenty you can do: salad leaves on a windowsill, a small raised bed in the garden, a few pots on the patio. Pick-your-own farms are also a brilliant day out, and a perfect way to show children where their food comes from.
Appeal to their ego or sense of humour
Spinach if they want to be stronger, runner beans if they want to run faster (not strictly true, but neither is the Easter Bunny). Beetroot if they want their wee to turn pink (just don’t be alarmed when this actually happens), and we all know what happens when you eat baked beans…
Of course, children should ideally eat at the table. But when my son went through a phase of refusing to sit in his highchair, I found he’d happily eat his lunch if I took him out in the pushchair. I don’t know why this worked, but it did, and I got some exercise.
Children are delightfully and easily amused, and it’s the same when it comes to food. Invest in some novelty-shaped cookie cutters such as animals, letters or hearts, and use them to cut out foods like sandwiches, omelettes and homemade pizza. Or try arranging vegetables into silly faces, writing your child’s name in blueberries or peas, making sculptures out of salad, filling an ice-cream cone with chopped fruit, or making a vegetable kebab.
One of the unwritten rules of childhood is that food tastes way better when eaten on the floor rather than at the table. Try turning lunchtime into a picnic, with a rug in the garden or park. If it’s raining, just spread out a blanket on the floor and invite a few teddy bears along to join the fun.
The hungrier children are, the more likely they are to eat something they’d normally refuse. The key is to help them work up an appetite while having fun: play football, take them to the park, go swimming, or go for a scoot, then as soon as you get home present them with your most unapologetically healthy dish. It’s best to have something pre-prepared, so you can just heat it up in minutes to avoid a hunger meltdown.
Let them pick
The half an hour before supper is the time they’re most likely to come whining for biscuits. While you’re cooking, leave a bowl of healthy snacks such as chopped vegetables, sliced avocado and baby tomatoes within reach, and let them clock up a couple of their five a day before they’ve even sat down.
Every time your little one tries a new food, write it down and give it a star rating. Older children can even do this themselves. Offer a small prize, such as stickers or a pencil, whenever they reach 10 new foods on the chart.
It’s easy to worry that your child isn’t getting enough of the good stuff. But Lucy Jones says, “most children grow, thrive and learn despite these spells. Showing stress has been shown to worsen and lengthen fussy eating phases. Try to assess your child’s intake over a week or so, as they are likely to have good and bad days, which tend to even out. If fussy eating becomes extreme, have a chat to your GP about it.”
Top tips from Dietician Lucy Jones
• If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. It could take 15-25 exposures before they are willing to try something, so don’t give up!
• No pressure. Don’t force your child to eat; studies show this makes it worse.
• No choccy rewards. Don’t reward eating with liked foods – use a trip to the park instead.
• Don’t restrict access to liked foods. It is only likely to reinforce their desirability.
• Be a role model. Don’t offer vegetables while you eat a takeaway.
• Make mealtimes happy and fun. And avoid telling off if you can.