By: Andrea Holwegner, Nutritionist & RD
Picky eaters are a tricky bunch to please and it can feel like a battle to get your child to try any food item that isn’t something they already know they like. You may be tempted to cave and give your child their favourite foods because you fear they won’t get enough nutrients otherwise and may even end up going hungry. However, by catering to your child’s likes and dislikes you are actually doing them a grave disservice by not encouraging them to expand their pallet and consume the fruits and vegetables their body needs.
So how do you convince a picky eater to try more fruits and vegetables? An article published in the February 2012 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Jennifer Savage and her colleagues reported that serving small portions of vegetables to children between the ages of three and five resulted in the children increasing their fruit and vegetable intake. By offering your child smaller portions (say half a portion of macaroni and cheese instead of a full one) you leave room for other healthy foods such as raw veggies with dip or fruit salad to be added. Smaller portions create room for compromise and encourage children to eat more of the fruits and vegetables offered to them instead of filling up on their favourite foods.
How Many Fruits and Vegetables Does My Child Need Per Day?
While the old Canada food guide recommended a set number of fruit and vegetable portions based on age, the new version is much simpler. Canadians are encouraged to consume “plenty of vegetables and fruits” (and depicts a plate that is half full of fruits and vegetables). Since many children fail to get enough fruits and vegetables for good health, chances are your child can benefit from increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables offered at meals and snacks. Speak to your Registered Dietitian and pediatrician about how much is best for your child.
Some Effective Strategies
Try the 2 x 2 Rule
I have found that following the 2 x 2 rule (offering your child two different vegetables at two different times during the day) is an effective way to help children consume more fruits and vegetables. For example, you might offer your child red peppers and celery sticks with hummus or dip for their afternoon snack and serve steamed peas and raw carrots with dinner. The more frequently you offer your child vegetables and the wider variety of vegetables you present them with, the more vegetables your child is likely to consume overall.
Try Different Textures and Flavours
An aversion to a particular food isn’t always about how it tastes, it may be about how it feels in your child’s mouth. Many kids are not huge fans of salads but may enjoy the crunchy texture of shredded cabbage or carrots. Instead of large chunks of hard vegetables try serving vegetables such as cucumbers, zucchini and peppers julienne style (small thin sticks) instead.
You might also try serving vegetables with homemade dip or hummus. To get you started here is one of my favourite vegetable dip recipes:
Raw Veggie Dip
2/3 cup (150 mL) mayonnaise or salad dressing
1/3 cup (75 mL) sour cream
splash Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp (15 mL) dried dill
1 tsp (5 mL) Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp (1 mL) onion powder
Stir the above ingredients together in a bowl and refrigerate.
If your child is averse to eating fruits you may want to try smoothies. Smoothies provide an easy meal for breakfast or can serve as an after-school snack. Traditional combinations such as banana or no-sugar-added frozen berries may be popular, but you can also try different combinations such as watermelon, mango, pineapple, or kiwi. You can also add raw kale or spinach to smoothies made with frozen mango and pineapple as many kids find this combination palatable.
Adding pureed onions, mushrooms, peppers, carrots, spinach and other vegetables to soups, stews and sauces can be a great way to sneak some vegetables into your child’s diet without a lot of fuss. You can also try adding finely chopped steamed cauliflower to macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes.
Offer Limited Options
Instead of simply asking your child what they would like for their lunch (and giving them free rein over their lunch bag) ask your child a series of either/or questions. For example, try saying “You need to have some fruits and veggies with your cheese sandwich. Would you prefer carrots or cucumbers for your vegetable? Would you prefer strawberries or kiwi for your fruit?” This gives your child some control over their meal choices but also ensures that they are choosing from a pool of equally healthy options.
Make it Fun
Getting your child excited about food and cooking can go a long way to expanding the variety of fruits and vegetables they like. Go to the library or search online for recipes and cookbooks aimed at children that offer plenty of pictures featuring attractive looking food. Let your child help you select and prepare new items by bringing them with you when you go to the farmer’s market or grocery store and letting them help you in the garden. Teaching your child about how different fruits and vegetables grow and all the amazing ways we can prepare them, fuels their natural curiosity and may make them view fruits and vegetables in a more positive light.
For younger children you may want to try giving fruits and vegetables fun names such as calling broccoli or asparagus “little trees” (your child can feel like a giant eating them!), calling Brussel sprouts “doll/action figure cabbages” (You eat your vegetables and Barbie will eat hers) or calling spinach “Popeye power” (imagine how strong you are going to be!)
For older children try serving fruits and vegetables in novel ways (like serving fruit salad kebabs, or skewering cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes on toothpicks). The novelty makes these foods more fun to eat and may entice your child into taking a few more bites than usual.
Use Positive Peer Pressure
Try to organize play dates so that your child spends more time with children who aren’t picky, eat healthily and enjoy foods your child refuses to eat. This may encourage your child to try new foods. Ideally, they would discover a new favourite, but even if they don’t at least you know they are trying new things.
Children may need to try a new food ten or even twenty times before they are willing to accept it. While you may be tempted to give up after Timmy refuses to even taste broccoli for the fifteenth time, be patient. Your child just might surprise you.
Children’s tastes change over time, so even if it feels like your child is never going to love vegetables, take solace in the fact that even the pickiest of eaters will expand their pallet eventually.
The Canada Food Guide has been updated since this post was first published. I have reworked this section to reflect those changes.