Why eating vegetables is important for children
Vegetables give your child energy, vitamins, anti-oxidants, fibre and water. They help protect your child against diseases later in life, including heart disease, stroke and some cancers. A healthy diet means eating lots of vegetables, plus a wide variety of foods from the other main food groups.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines say 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 working on it. 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.
Tip 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 her 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 his siblings filling plates with vegies to enjoy, he’ll probably want to copy you.
Tip 2: keep trying with vegetables
It’s normal for children to say they don’t like vegetables when they first taste them. If your child says she doesn’t like vegetables – or doesn’t like a new vegetable – keep offering them to her at mealtimes. Also keep encouraging her to try and taste them.
Your child will probably change his 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.
Tip 3: use praise when your child tries vegetables
If you praise your child each time she eats or tries vegetables, she’s more likely to eat vegetables again. Praise works best when you tell your child exactly what she 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 he likes them, not because he 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, it’s best to take her meal away after about 20 minutes. Try not to make a big deal about it – just try again another time.
It’s not a good idea to say 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.
Tip 4: get your child involved in cooking with vegetables
If you get your child involved in planning and cooking family meals with vegetables, he’s more likely to want to eat the vegetables he’s 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 lots of different vegetables can make children more curious and interested to try them.
Tip 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 she’s 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.
Tip 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 he’s 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 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.
Tip 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 dietitian.