Are you a veggie smuggler? Do you puree broccoli and hide it in your child’s favourite pasta sauce? Do you make spinach pass as parsley? Do you sneak grated zucchinis into your chocolate muffins?
Seeing our kids eat healthy food is rewarding. If your child refuses to eat most vegetables, it’s tempting to hide them in foods they like. This way, no one gets hurt. They enjoy the food. You enjoy feeding them healthy food.
The problem is that this strategy is flawed. Children learn to like new foods through exposure. While your child may eat the hidden vegetables, they are not learning to like them.
When we hide veggies…
…our children don’t experience the taste, the smell, or the texture. They aren’t getting the exposure necessary to develop a liking for those vegetables.
… we’re sending the message that there’s something wrong with vegetables – if we hide them, they must taste bad!
…our kids are not learning to eat vegetables as part of a healthy diet. Eating habits developed during early childhood often continue into adulthood, so learning to love plenty of vegetables is essential to long-term health.
Children who don’t eat vegetables don’t want to eat vegetables…
This is because vegetables are not familiar to them, making them more scary or daunting. Finding hidden veggies can be even more upsetting; they may feel tricked and lose trust. For kids to feel less anxious about eating vegetables, they need to see them, smell them, touch them, and taste them, again and again.
As children taste more vegetables, they acquire taste preferences for them; that is, they learn to like them! Veggies become more familiar, and children feel less anxious about trying new ones. It may require a little courage at first, but the more they try, the more adventurous they will become.
Don’t hide the veggies!
When it comes to feeding children, it’s always best to be open and honest, not sneaky. It’s also important to offer a wide variety of nutritious foods, and encourage your child to taste. Our kids are developing eating habits for life – they need to start learning now about making smart food choices, and start now to enjoy healthy, nutritious food.
How do you start? Here are some tips:
• Reveal the hidden veggies. If you’ve been hiding vegetables in dishes your child loves, start by revealing your recipe. Talk about all the ingredients, or how you cooked the dish, while you eat it. You might even ask them to help you cook the dish – kids love to help in the kitchen if you make it fun!
• Offer new vegetables with liked foods. When introducing new vegetables, add them to or alongside dishes your child already likes. You can also encourage them to taste the new food with another food they already like on the plate.
• Start with a small quantity. A big serve of a new food can be overwhelming for children. Offer a small amount, and don’t worry about how much of it they eat.
• Encourage your child to taste. Encourage your child to have a small taste, and don’t worry if they don’t like it or don’t want to eat more of it. Always praise them for trying a new food and don’t pressure them to eat more of it if they don’t want to.
• Keep offering a wide variety of vegetables. Continue to offer plenty of vegetables, even those they don’t like yet. As they taste them again and again, they will gradually develop a liking for them.
• Remove the pressure. Sometimes it’s not the taste that worries children, but having to swallow a food they really dislike. Allow your child to spit out a food if they don’t want to swallow it, or offer a drink to wash it down. Don’t get mad or worry, praise them for trying and move on.
• Explain to your child that they are learning to like vegetables. Your child might not understand why you keep asking them to eat a food they dislike. Explain to them that their taste is changing all the time, and that every time they try something, they might like it.
• Celebrate vegetables. Instead of hiding veggies, celebrate them! Talk enthusiastically with your child about everything that makes them interesting, delicious and nutritious. Vegetables are AMAZING, and there is much we can get excited about – the colours, textures, smell, taste, and health benefits.
Liking a wide variety of foods is a learning process. For children to learn to enjoy new foods, including vegetables, they need to taste them, often many times, many different ways. So don’t give up, keep encouraging your child to explore and taste new veggies.
About the Author: Justine Simard-Lebrun is the founder of Kids Love Good Food and the author of the book ‘Try It You’ll Like It – A parent’s guide to raising healthy, adventurous eaters’. As a mother of two and parenting educator with a background in behavioural and nutrition psychology, Justine provides simple, down-to-earth strategies that help parents beat fussy eating and raise children who love good food.