Science-Based Tips to Get Your Toddler to Eat Their Veggies

My 3-year-old does not like vegetables. This kills me because I love vegetables (and all other food)! And I certainly never anticipated that my perfect child would survive on a diet of chicken nuggets, toast and bananas. I’ve taken to the internet to find out if science supports any strategies to get toddlers to eat veggies. Is bribery the answer? Should I force him? Should I starve him? How important are the recommended 5 serves?

The first thing I learned, much to my relief, is that for toddlers (2-3 years) the recommended number of servings of vegetables per day is 2.5, not 5 like it is for most adolescents and adults. This seems like a much more achievable target.

I’ve also learned that there’s an evolutionary reason for their disdain for anything green. Toddlers are particularly sensitive to bitter tastes. This becomes prominent at the age of two when most traditional cultures wean their babies and kids start foraging for food. This is natural selection at its finest. Back in our caveman days, if you ate something bitter, you could die, sweet things were safe. Okay, cool. But cavemen weren’t exactly known for their longevity, so do I need to worry about rickets and scurvy??

Try Hiding Them…(Hello Mrs Obvious)

I feel a bit silly recommending this. It hardly ever works for ‘Mr Sniff Out the Blended Zucchini from Seven Miles Away’ but it’s worth a shot. The classic example is blending vegetables in to sauces for pasta. Try this highly recommended recipe from the Food Revolution king himself, Jamie Oliver. As a passionate foodie and dad of five he’s got tons of great tips, I love the honesty in this one.

When it comes to hiding veggies, the only thing that has worked for me is including sweet vegetables (think carrot and beetroot) blended with fruit in a fresh juice. Juice is considered by many to be a bit of a ‘no no’ due to it’s fast-acting sugar hit, so I was glad to see the science backed me on this one;

A Spoonful of Sugar…

Adding sweetness to vegetables not only makes them more appealing to eat, it actually improves a child’s palate for the unsweetened version. Think Pavlov and his dogs; taste-bud conditioning. There have been several studies that have demonstrated this; Capaldi and Privitera (2008) found that kids who drank sweetened grapefruit juice were more likely to like the unsweetened version several weeks later (compared with kids who only ever drank the plain juice). Havermans and Jansen (2007) found the same results in a similar study with vegetables. Sweetening the vegetables thus conditioning the children’s taste buds to enjoy their unsweetened counter-parts.

Social Science

Other children acting as positive role models has been one of my greatest successes and has led to raw carrots officially being accepted on the menu. Humans are social creatures who follow social cues. One experimental study (Staiano et al, 2016) found that children who watched a video of other kids eating capsicum were more likely to eat capsicum than the group of kids who did not watch the video.

Stick With it

Almost every article I read mentioned that kids may need to be exposed to a vegetable up to 10 times before they will accept it. Tastes change (or probably more accurately, moods change) and the more they see it and see other people eating it the more likely they will be to give it a go someday. The scientific term for picky eaters is food neophobia, defined as the fear and avoidance of new foods. The more exposure your child has to the food, the less new and foreign it will seem. Especially if they see you enjoying it!

Don’t Panic

The chances of a major vitamin deficiency are pretty rare. In Australia they have been fortifying foods like breakfast cereals, milk, margarine and toast (toddler favourites) since the early 1900’s to prevent widespread nutritional deficiencies in times of reduced availability of fresh food.
If like me, your toddler struggles with veggies, try to keep the fruit intake up. While fruit has a lot of sugar (the recommended daily serve for a toddler is 1!?), it also has lots of fibre and phytonutrients, the very things they are missing out on by not eating vegetables. At least they’re eating something that was growing and hasn’t been processed. And if all else fails, a good quality kids multi-vitamin can help fill the gaps.

Make Friends with Food

The most important thing is to foster your child’s healthy relationship with food. Make meal times fun, use colourful tableware, include lots of variety including their favourite foods, new foods, and a yummy condiment for dipping. Be a positive role model. Let them see you enjoying lots of healthy vegetables and always include them on their plate, whether they eat them or not. If they choose to leave them, don’t make a big deal about it. The research shows that exerting too much pressure at meal times is counterproductive and can lead to a lifelong dislike of certain vegetables and a lower overall consumption in adulthood (Savage et al, 2008). As they grow up, their diet will evolve from the foods that are eaten in the family home, food that are available and accessible to them.