My toddler loves vegetables. This is a photo of what he and his siblings eat, at least twice a week.
I hesitate saying this because, well, in a sea of veggie-hating toddlers, it seems almost self-congratulatory. So let me say that like other kids I know: mine also jumps at any chance he gets to eat chocolate, ice cream and fries. Given a plate with half of those on one side and veggies on the other, he’d pick the former first.
That said, eating veggies isn’t a struggle in our family. It has, however, taken a lot of intentional, concerted effort to get to this point. Here are 12 things that made my toddler a relatively fuss-free, veggie eater.
1. An Early Start
When Piglet began solids, I served him two portions of steamed veggies and two portions of raw fruit daily. Carrot, pumpkin, spinach, sweet potato and potato were steamed, while avocado, papaya, mango, banana and apple were finely mashed. Pears were stewed. Piglet also ate millet and brown rice, which were finely grounded and steamed. I never gave him commercial cereal with sugar in it. I always feel that sugar-free solids in the first two years helped our kids get accustomed to the natural taste of food.
2. Transition Gradually to Raw Veggies
In his first year, Piglet gnawed on whole peeled carrots and cucumbers. He tasted the juice and scraped off a little veggie with his gums. When he began chewing on rougher texture like rice porridge (around one-year-old), I introduced very fine slices of raw cucumber and later, carrots. Ripe and sweet tomato wedges were a big hit. (Raw tomatoes can be harsh on tender mouths.)
3. Keep Trying
Some toddlers are wary of trying new things. I read somewhere that it takes at least three separate exposures for something to become familiar. Once it’s familiar, it will usually be accepted without resistance. I kept introducing new veggies for an unlimited time until Piglet ate practically everything that was served.
4. Eat Your Own Veggies with a Smile
Whenever I introduce veggies, I tell Piglet how yummy they are – Mama’s favourite! (That is true, I love vegetables uncooked, with all the nutrients intact.) Parental enthusiasm is usually infectious, as opposed to parental pressure or bribery.
5. Serve Veggies Regularly
The number one rule in creating a veggie-eating habit is simple: consistency. Making veggies a staple part of every lunch and dinner is important. In addition, I serve raw veggies at least four times a week. When Piglet watches everyone eat it, he follows suit.
6. Limit Certain Snacks
This, for me, is rule number two. I quickly realised keeping sugary treats at home and offering sweet biscuits, even Milo or chocolate milk regularly, was a bad idea. Piglet would want those instead of of veggies.
I bake cheese buns and wholemeal crackers instead of muffins, and serve fresh fruit, natural yogurt, toasted nuts, veggie sticks and steamed sweet potatoes for snacks. We have commercial biscuits sometimes, but those are the exception rather than the norm.
7. Limit Options
It’s tempting to give up on a fussy eater and let him eat cookies or a favourite cereal after rejecting a meal you’ve prepared. But this is a slippery slope that allows a toddler to dictate what he wants to eat and often results in imbalanced, unhealthy eating. We have a house rule that our kids eat what we eat. If they refuse to eat, they don’t eat. It takes energy to implement this consistently, but I learned that a toddler never starves from missing a meal. He will eventually eat.
8. Don’t Limit Exploration
Toddlers love exploring things independently. I discovered that keeping quiet on the sidelines while Piglet grabbed anything he fancied on the meal table was the best way of allowing him to try a wide variety of food, including vegetables. We don’t say “Hey, that’s bitter” or “You won’t like that”. Piglet now eats curries, every veggie the family eats, and recently discovered a love of thinly sliced, fried ginger strips after picking some garnishing off our steamed fish.
9. Have Fun with Dips and Toppings
Piglet sometimes enjoys dipping raw veggie sticks in mayonnaise or egg dips. I also let him place butter cubes or grated cheese on top of steaming hot broccoli or cauliflower florets and watch them melt. He always wants to sample the results after that.
10. Shop for Veggies Together
I let Piglet sit in the supermarket trolley and help me put veggies into bags as I select them. At home, we talk about their colours and shapes while he helps me load the veggies into the fridge. I reckon knowing a veggie’s name and what it looks and feels like is a good start to a life-long friendship.
11. Prepare Veggies Together
Everyday, Piglet stands on a sturdy stool and helps me in the kitchen. This often includes washing veggies, sometimes cutting them. I usually eat some along the way and ask him if he wants to try some. He almost always does. My kids have tried all kinds of raw veggies this way, including onions, ginger and chives, which they love. Raw bitter gourd – they don’t love!
12. Take Veggies Out
Whenever we go on long drives, even on half-day trips out, I often bring bite-size fresh fruits and veggies. Our kids have come to accept them as delicious snacks.
Do you have any strategies that help your kid enjoy veggies? I’d love to know if any of these ideas work (or don’t work) for you.
Jin Ai traded refugee work for diapers, dishes and homeschooling. She blogs about parenting, home education and life as mom to four kids (one baking) at Mama Hear Me Roar.