How Do You Teach Kids to Like Vegetables?

CC BY 2.0. Kei Noguchi -- "It just tastes so good!"

Parents resort to elaborate negotiation to get children to eat nutritiously, but perhaps it's much simpler than that.

A few months ago, I wrote about a study that tried bribing children to eat vegetables. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that kids were quite willing to fill up on nutritious produce if monetary incentives were involved. (Who wouldn’t?) The study, however, raised questions about whether something as fundamentally necessary to one’s health as vegetables should be subject to negotiation of any kind in the home.

One reader left a wonderfully detailed comment, explaining his approach to training three kids how to eat, and enjoy, vegetables. An excerpt:

“In our household, we focus on providing fresh fruits and vegetables that taste good. Our children eat these foods, because they enjoy them. Humans have evolved to have a quite satisfactory pleasure response to eating in general, and this is easily leveraged to induce healthy eating in children, without resorting to bribes or other cajolery.”

He has two food rules, which resonated with me and my own tough-love approach to food and kids. I wanted to share these and expand on them slightly, as I think they’re valuable advice to parents struggling to teach their kids how to enjoy nutritious food.

Rule #1: Don’t mess with perfection.

Vegetables taste delicious when prepared properly and, in most cases, less intervention is best. Knowing how to cook vegetables so that they’re delicious is key to expecting children to eat them. For example, roasted cabbage is far more delicious than boiled. Caramelized beets are irresistible compared to beets whose flavor has been boiled away completely. Lightly dressed salad greens, just-wilted spinach, a fresh raw carrot, still-crisp green beans, sweet corn on the cob, broccoli steamed to a bright green (but no further) and served with butter and salt – these are delicious vegetables that most children’s taste buds, with practice, will learn to appreciate.

But if you serve children poorly cooked vegetables, that will simply reinforce the hatred. Even I don’t want to eat limp broccoli, boiled Brussels sprouts, over-dressed coleslaw, tough eggplant skin, or frozen veggie mixes. (These may have comparable nutritional value, but when it comes to actual taste, they cannot compete.)

Rule #2: Be willing to compromise.

As is the case with every aspect of parenting, you cannot be too hardnosed or kids will be entirely unwilling to cooperate. Set a few ground rules and stick to them. A parent should not negotiate with their child, but the child still needs space for autonomy and self-determination. In my family, for example, the kids are expected to eat a bit of everything that’s made. It might be as little as one or two mushrooms a week, but it keeps them trying the foods they say they don’t like.

From the reader’s comment:

“We understand that children taste things differently, and even individuals of the same age have different taste responses to the molecules in our foods. [Our] son is required to try a small serving of broccoli at least once a month, which accomplishes two goals (besides getting him to eat broccoli at least once in awhile): 1) He gets to try it different ways, so we can understand better what preparations work for him and what ones don't, and 2) as his tastes change as he gets older, he won't be stuck with an outdated idea that he doesn't like broccoli.”

3. Model good habits.

I would like to add a final point. It’s imperative that parents model good food habits if they want their children to have the same. That means eating what’s served for dinner without making negative comments about the food and eating the same thing as the rest of the family in healthy quantities. As soon as parents start acting picky or making exceptions for themselves, children will pick up on those habits and copy them.