Fruit and vegetables are clearly better for you and your family than processed foods and high-fat snacks like crisps, biscuits and sweets. However, getting your children to eat fruit and vegetables can be a real chore! Indeed it’s common to find that your success in getting your offspring to eat more fruit and vegetables is inversely related to the amount of fuss one makes about it! In other words the more you go on about it (or try to force it), the less successful you are.
The natural sugars that occur in fruit means that it is particularly palatable – yes, that’s right: it tastes nice! Therefore, the main issue with fruit tends to manifest with older children and teenagers. Their reluctance to eat fruit seems to be related to an unwillingness to want to deal with cores, peels, stones and pips. Another big turnoff for older children is getting sticky hands because of the perceived "effort" it takes to wash them. Or it could just be the case of a stroppy teenager rebelling against what they being asked to do or against what is good and ‘right’!
Consequently, an easy way to add more fruit to your children’s diet, if they are pre-teens and teenagers, is to prepare it for them. For example, making them smoothies, fruit muffins, fruit pies, flans, pancakes and homemade fruit sorbets. Tip: prepare a large bowl of fruit salad and leave it on the kitchen table with spoons and desert bowls next to it so your children can help themselves.
While getting more fruit into your children may be as easy as putting it in front of them ready prepared, vegetables, on the other hand, are a whole different matter.
Many young children start refusing to eat vegetables as toddlers. A large part of this behaviour is probably due to most vegetables being an acquired taste. Particularly given the high fat, salt and sugar content that makes the process foods in our diets more appealing to our less mature taste buds.
Another thing that may contribute to young children's unwillingness to eat vegetables could be evolution. We are born with a preference for sweet tasting, high-energy foods, which was necessary for survival in times when food was scarce. Also, we are programmed to be wary of unfamiliar taste as a defence mechanism against foods that could be poisonous.
Unlike fruit, most vegetables are consumed as part of a meal. Therefore, instilling a like of vegetables into your children means that they will continue to eat them as part of a healthy diet as they grow up and not leave them on the side of their plate. The first thing to remember is that children are natural mimics. They do what you do. If you are a good vegetable-eating role model, your children will be more likely to follow your example.
Getting children involved in meal preparation is a good way to get young children to see vegetables in a different light. Get them grating carrots shelling peas, peeling mushrooms or washing hard vegetables like potatoes. Older children can do more and use kitchen utensils such as peelers and knives with supervision. This is also a great opportunity for family time.
Involving children in cooking can help to make eating vegetables fun. As can getting them involved in growing vegetables, such as peas and beans and carrots. There is real magic in seeing a little seed turn into something that you can eat plus a sense of achievement that children (and adults) love. If you don’t have anywhere to grow vegetables, take your children shopping for them instead. Encourage them to handle the produce and choose the ones they’d like to try.
Another tactic is to offer a variety of vegetables. Everyone has their own individual preferences and children are no different. It could be that your young ones just don’t like broccoli. In which case, rather than insisting that they eat broccoli, offer them a different choice next time.
Vegetables that look exciting and colourful are more likely to get eaten so get creative. Simple things like carrots curls, which you can make by using a potato peeler to create long carrot strips, are much more interesting than carrot chunks. Stir-fried vegetables (with a spray of oil sautéed in a wok) are full of colour and variety and a great way to present vegetables in an interesting fashion. Indeed borrowing vegetable recipes from other cultures can add appealing flavours, textures and colours to vegetables that children may have previously refused to try.
If engagement and preparation don’t work, you can employ psychology! Institute the "try before you say bye-bye" bite rule. Tell your children that they have to have a “one bite try” before they can refuse to eat their vegetables. At least this way they are getting familiar with the tastes. Most vegetables tend to be an acquired taste anyway, so it is likely that they will eventually become comfortable with eating vegetables, if they regularly taste them.
Rechristen their vegetables with cute names. Marketers do this all the time to persuade us to see things in a new light, so clearly it is a tactic that works. You can turn finding new names for vegetables into a fun game to play with your children.
Hide vegetables by puréeing them and adding them to sources or serving them as soups or even baked into muffins.
Finally, if all else fails – you can always resort to old-fashioned “dessert bribery”…make dessert or treats conditional on eating up their vegetables. It may not be the most ethical of methods, but countless parents for generations swear it works!