Mothers often wonder, and books and web pages disagree, about whether you should hide veggies on a plate in the hope your child will eat them without noticing. My answers as a registered dietician are the same as my answer as a mom: you should not.
Having a toddler always means power struggles. A main focus of my work with helping families feed their children from infancy to their teenage years is to take the power struggle out of food.
A big aspect of this is removing all forms of pressure, including hidden vegetables. After all, how would you feel if someone hid something in your food? I know I’d be upset! I like to empower kids with choices from what is offered.
Here are a few tips:
- Parents choose what’s served, then kids choose from what’s offered. Let’s say the meal is chicken, rice and broccoli. The kids can eat as much as they want of any of those foods. If they don’t choose broccoli that’s okay. Really. Continue offering vegetables with every meal, but remove the pressure to eat them. If the rest of the family eats their veggies and there’s no pressure, your kids might surprise you. If they do choose a broccoli, they shouldn’t be pressured to eat it. Don’t create any kind of pressure such as insisting they try a bite, or finish what they take, or eat like everyone else.
- Involve kids. Let them help choose vegetables to go with dinner. Let them pick something new to try at the grocery store. Let them help prepare the vegetables for dinner. Kids love to grate, cut, wash, pull out of the fridge, etc. Involve them based on their age and ability.
- Don’t hide any vegetables. Making a pureed soup? That’s great, but tell your kids what’s in it. Everyone, including kids, has preferences. They may or may not like certain vegetables, and that’s their right. I’m sure most parents remember being forced as a kid to eat things they didn’t like. Don’t repeat that behavior for your kids.
- Grow a garden. Having kids plan and plant a vegetable garden can pique their interest. If they’ve seen the food grow and helped with the process, they often want to try the end result. Container gardening works for this, or a community garden or a u-pick.
- Offer a variety of forms of veggies, like cooked, raw, roasted, grated, cubed, etc. Providing different forms for a vegetable can be a real hit. Try putting vegetables in smoothies and baked goods, but always tell your child what vegetables are in there.
- Be a role model. When kids see everyone else enjoying vegetables and the pressure is removed, they will often try some. Be sure to include vegetables with every meal and snack. Making an omelet for breakfast? Throw in some veggies. Load up that sandwich at lunch with veggies, and have some veggies and hummus for a snack. Try having a salad on the side with dinner and incorporating a rainbow of color with your veggies in the meal.
- Presentation matters. Try serving meals with the makings in different bowls in the center of the table. Everyone can pick and choose what they want. Try using little containers to put cut-up veggies in with hummus for a snack at school or on the road. You don’t have to make vegetables look like various characters and elaborate pictures like you see on Pinetrest, but presenting them with a little thought can go a long way. Some families find using catchy names gets their kids interested — trees instead of broccoli, cauli-power, etc. Remember: the more color, the more appeal.
In short, it’s about building trust. Removing the power struggles from food choices is so important. Don’t deceive children about vegetables being in a dish. If a pureed soup has different vegetables in it and your kids enjoy it, they may not even realize they like these vegetables if they aren’t told what they’re eating. In fact, deception can backfire — children won’t eat something again just out of spite, or they won’t eat a vegetable because they don’t know they like it.
If a child tries a new food and doesn’t like it, it’s fine to spit it out. Just teach them a polite way to do so. Knowing they have the option to spit it out can encourage them to try more. It takes 15-20 times of trying a food to decide you actually like it so it might take a lot of spitting it out before they know whether they like it or not. As long as you provide the option to try vegetables in their own time, it will happen. Don’t lose patience, and don’t lose hope.
My best advice: don’t worry! It won’t be like this forever. When people are really concerned I work with them to look at ways pressure can appear and power struggles develop. We go through their diet to ensure their child is getting necessary nutrients or to find alternatives that the child accepts.
Remember, kids have different eating patterns. This is normal.