How Can I Encourage My Baby or Toddler to Eat More Vegetables?
This post is my answer to a friend’s concern about her 11-month-old, who refuses to eat most vegetables. It is such a universal concern that, with her permission, I turned it into a blog post. She writes:
“My 11-month-old is a pretty good eater when it comes to everything but veggies. He can sift through a bite in his mouth and spit out only the vegetables. I am trying not to add salt or oil or cheese to the vegetables, but he hates them! (Sweet potatoes/yams are okay, and once in a while peas, too.) Any suggestions on how to incorporate vegetables into his diet?”
I think just about every parent wishes her child would eat more vegetables. We found that BabyC became much more selective about what she ate right around 11 months, and there was a noticeable drop in her vegetable intake at that time.
We all want our kids to eat well today (or at least on average over the week), but we also want them to form healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime. Are there any strategies we can use to get our babies and toddlers to eat more vegetables? Luckily, there is a ton of interesting research on this topic.
First, studies show that you are not alone. This probably will not surprise you, but sometimes it helps to know that your child is completely normal. A 2008 survey  of over 1500 babies and toddlers in the U.S. found that, among 9- to 24-month-olds, roughly 30% of them ate NO vegetables on a given day, and this study counted French fries as a vegetable! Only about 10% ate dark green veggies and 15-30% ate yellow veggies on a daily basis. What was the most popular vegetable in this age group? You guessed it – the humble potato.
There is a biological explanation for why your child may avoid green vegetables in particular. Roughly 70% of humans worldwide are sensitive to bitter taste. A gene associated with bitter sensitivity has been identified, and a simple standardized taste test can pick out bitter-sensitive kids from a crowd. Given this test, most kids will pronounce that they’ve just tasted something “yucky.” Studies of preschool children have found that bitter tasters actually eat fewer vegetables and are less likely to classify bitter vegetables (such as broccoli) as “yummy” .
We can guess that being a bitter taster would be an evolutionary advantage to survival if you were foraging for edible things in the wild. Bitter tasting plants are often poisonous, and particularly if you were a toddler just starting out in the world, you would want to be cautious about eating a lot of bitter-tasting leafy greens. If your child can detect a hint of broccoli among a spoonful of other delicious flavors, congratulate him on being well-suited for foraging in the wild. He’s just honoring a genetic, innate skepticism of bitter things, and in a different world, this would be a very good trait to have. The good news is that this aversion can be overcome with time and exposure to veggies in the same way that most people learn to love coffee, even though they would immediately pronounce it “yucky” as a child. We just have to quietly convince our children that cool kids eat broccoli with their lattes. Having a farmers’ market on every corner next to the Starbucks wouldn’t hurt either, but I digress…
Does it matter whether or not your baby or toddler eats vegetables? Maybe. Veggies are good sources of fiber, calcium, and iron – all nutrients often lacking in baby and toddler diets – among other vitamins and minerals. Plus, kids that eat vegetables early in life tend to continue to eat them as adults . Helping your toddler make healthy choices now might just translate to healthy choices when he’s on his own in an all-you-can-eat college cafeteria. (I said might. I wouldn’t count on it, but it is worth a shot.)
Just how do you go about encouraging your child to eat more veggies? Carefully, quietly, and patiently, my friend. Here are 5 evidence-based strategies that you can try:
1. Be a good model. Eat and enjoy lots of veggies at the table with your child. Research has shown that parental modeling of healthy eating is strongly correlated to fruit and vegetable consumption of 2-year-olds .
2. Exposure, exposure, exposure. The only way for your toddler to override that innate aversion to bitterness is to repeatedly taste vegetables. As the taste slowly becomes familiar, your toddler becomes less skeptical. He might decide to even swallow just a tiny bit of broccoli one day, and when he doesn’t become sick from it (as would happen if he tasted a poisonous wild plant), he might eat a little more of it the next day. Multiple studies from 7-month-olds to older children have shown that repeated exposure to veggies does result in higher veggie intake (even 4 times more!), but this can take 8 or more exposures [7, 8]. Most parents can’t take that kind of repeated rejection. They might offer broccoli 2-3 times and then give up, concluding “Billy doesn’t like broccoli” (words you should really try to avoid uttering – self-fulfilling prophecy and all). Consider it a good day if your toddler tastes a vegetable, even if he spits it back out, and offer more tomorrow or the next day.
3. Offer a variety of vegetables. This has been studied specifically with young infants who are early in their exposure to solid foods (4-9 months). Several studies have found that offering different vegetables at different meals, as well as multiple vegetables in the same meal, for 9-12 days, increases veggie intake [9, 10]. The idea is to expose infants to lots of different tastes early on in their food experience. However, this has only been studied in the short-term. We don’t know if 2-year-olds that were offered a variety of vegetables at 9 months are still more adventurous eaters. But it can’t hurt to try.
4. Add flavor. Babies just starting out with solid foods don’t need salt or fat added to their veggies. They don’t know what they are missing and most will happily eat plain steamed vegetables. However, if you feel like your older baby’s list of acceptable veggies is getting smaller and smaller, consider livening things up a bit. Your ultimate goal is to transition your baby to eating the same foods as the rest of the family, and most of us enjoy our veggies with other flavors. Salt can suppress the perception of bitterness, so try adding a little to vegetables that are challenging for your child. One study found that adding a little salt to green beans increased their consumption in 2- to 3-year-olds . Also consider roasting vegetables with a little salt and olive oil, since roasting will bring out sweetness. Cook veggies in chicken broth to infuse them with flavor. Melt a little cheese on broccoli. At this point, I think it is more important to encourage your child to try vegetables than to keep them in their purest form. Just be aware that you do run the risk of conditioning your child to always need salt with his green beans. One study  assigned 4- to 5-year-old kids to taste plain, sweet, or salty tofu 15 times over the course of 9 weeks. At the end of this experiment, the kids preferred whatever type of tofu they had been exposed to – that is, the kids that had eaten salty tofu for 9 weeks liked salty tofu better than plain or sweet tofu. The good news is that when the researchers asked the same kids to taste-test plain, salty, or sweet ricotta cheese (which looked a lot like the tofu), the kids’ tofu preference didn’t carry over to ricotta. So if your child becomes conditioned to only eat green beans with salt, that doesn’t mean he’ll need salt with his broccoli, too. Take home message: use salt (and other flavor enhancers), but use it sparingly and strategically.
5. Sneak them in. In one study , 3- to 5-year-olds were offered entrées (including zucchini bread, pasta and sauce, and chicken noodle casserole) with several different levels of pureed vegetables covertly incorporated. The kids ate the same weight of the entrées regardless of vegetable content, and they even ate the same amount of other vegetable sides! Jamie Oliver’s Best Tomato Sauce Ever includes onions, leeks, celery, bell peppers, zucchini, and carrots, and one portion contains 2-3 servings of veggies! Spinach lasagna is a classic and a comfort food. Bake carrots and zucchini into muffins. Grate veggies and work them into meatballs. Get covert and creative with your cooking and then relax at mealtime.
Now that you have lots of ideas about adding vegetables to your toddler’s diet, let’s talk about what doesn’t work. Pressure and manipulation don’t work. One-year-olds who were pressured by their mothers to eat fruits and vegetables ended up eating less of both by the time they were 2 . Even rewards don’t work. In a study of 5- to 7-year-olds, offering a cool sticker as a reward for trying vegetables did not help those kids to like or eat more vegetables . If you take nothing else away from this article, please remember this: you can’t make your child eat anything, and you shouldn’t try. Saying things like, “Just try one bite for Mommy” or “Santa will bring you more presents if he sees you eating your green beans,” will only make your child more skeptical of vegetables and begin a power struggle that you won’t win. Instead, act like you don’t care if your child eats vegetables. Continue to eat a variety of veggies yourself and offer them to your child with yummy accompaniments, and be patient. That is really all you can do. Your kid might grow out of his veggie aversion or he might not. Either way, he’ll be just fine.
Do you worry that your child doesn’t eat enough vegetables? What has worked for you to increase veggie “likeability”?
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