Why eating vegetables is important for children
Vegetables give your child energy, vitamins, anti-oxidants, fibre and water. They help protect your child against chronic diseases later in life, including heart disease, stroke and some cancers.
A healthy diet means eating plenty of vegetables, plus a wide variety of foods from the other main food groups.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that children aged:
- 1-2 years should have 2-3 serves of vegetables each day
- 2-3 years should have 2½ serves of vegetables each day
- 4-8 years should have 4½ serves of vegetables each day.
If your child finds it hard to eat enough vegetables, it’s important to keep encouraging them. If you help your child develop healthy eating habits now, it sets up healthy habits for life.
Our tips below can help you get more vegetables into your family’s diet.
For more information you can read our articles on healthy food for babies and toddlers, healthy food for preschoolers and healthy food for school-age children.
1. Set a good example with vegetables
Your child learns about food choices from you, so the best way to encourage your child to eat vegetables is to let your child see you eating and enjoying them yourself.
Family meals are a good time to teach your child about healthy eating, including eating vegetables. Family foods like stir-fries, curries, roasts and pastas all taste great with more vegies. A bowl of salad on the side is a quick and tasty option too.
If your child sees you and their siblings filling plates with vegies to enjoy, your child will probably want to do the same.
2. Keep trying with vegetables
It’s normal for children to say they don’t like some vegetables when they first taste them. If your child doesn’t like a particular vegetable, try offering small amounts of the vegetable with another healthy food that your child likes. Also keep encouraging your child to try and taste vegetables.
Your child will probably change their mind about vegetables eventually. Some children need to try a new food up to 10 times before they accept it, and another 10 times before they decide they like it.
3. Use praise when your child tries vegetables
If you praise your child each time they eat or try vegetables, they’ll be more likely to eat vegetables again. Praise works best when you tell your child exactly what they did well – for example, ‘Peri, I love the way you tasted your pumpkin and broccoli!’
Try not to let praise become the focus of the meal, though. Your aim is to encourage your child to eat vegetables because your child likes them, not because your child wants praise and rewards from you.
Punishing your child for not eating vegetables can turn vegetables into a negative thing for your child. If your child refuses to eat their vegetables, try not to make a big deal about it – just try again another time. It’s best to take your child’s meal away after about 20 minutes or when everyone else has finished eating.
It’s not a good idea to use food as a bribe. For example, avoid saying things like, ‘If you eat your broccoli, you can have some ice-cream for dessert’. This can make your child more interested in treats than healthy foods. It also suggests that eating the healthy food is a chore. And it can encourage overeating.
4. Get your child involved in cooking with vegetables
If you get your child involved in planning and cooking family meals with vegetables, they’re more likely to want to eat the vegetables they’ve helped to prepare.
For example, you could let your child:
- choose vegetables for dinner when you do the shopping
- put chopped vegetables in the steamer or saucepan before you cook them
- arrange sliced capsicum, tomato and mushroom on a pizza base
- wash and toss salad leaves.
Older children can help with grating or chopping vegetables when you feel they can safely handle sharper kitchen tools.
Take children shopping with you when you can. Seeing a lot of different vegetables can make children more curious and interested to try them.
5. Offer vegetables as snacks
Vegetables make great snacks. If you stock up on vegetables for snacks and limit unhealthy snacks in your home, your child will be more likely to choose vegetables when they’re hungry.
Here are some vegetable snack ideas:
- Keep a container of chopped vegetables, like cucumber, carrots or capsicum, in the fridge. A bowl of cherry tomatoes on the bench is another option.
- Offer older children frozen baby peas, but note that these can be a choking hazard for younger children.
- Serve vegetable sticks with dip, natural yoghurt, cheese or wholemeal pita bread.
6. Go for vegetable variety, taste and fun
Try to choose vegies of different shapes, colours, textures and tastes – the more variety there is, the more likely it is your child will find something that they’re interested in eating. If you serve new vegetables with food your child enjoys, the entire focus of the meal isn’t on new vegetables.
Remember that taste matters. For example, you could try roasting vegies with fresh herbs and lemon juice or use finely sliced broccoli in a stir-fry or on a pizza. This will probably appeal more to your child than large steamed pieces of vegetables.
You can have fun with vegetables too, especially with younger children. You might sometimes like to make a vegetable face for a snack plate – grated carrot for hair, cherry tomatoes for eyes, a bean for a nose and capsicum strips for a mouth.
Check out our recipes for toddlers, recipes for preschoolers and recipes for school-age children for more healthy snack and meal ideas.
7. Get vegetables into meals in other ways
In the short term, you can disguise vegetables in foods you know your child likes to eat. For example, you could include pureed or grated vegetables in pasta sauce or soups.
This won’t change your child’s behaviour and thinking about vegetables though, so it’s also important to regularly give your child vegetables in their original form. When you do this, your child has the chance to get familiar with and learn to like different tastes and textures.
If you’re worried about your child’s eating habits, make an appointment to see a GP, paediatrician or dietitian.