Let’s face it, most children aren’t thrilled about eating vegetables and it requires some inspiration and encouragement to push their attitude toward a level of excitement. Despite the challenge, early exposure is key to getting them to ‘veg-up’ and setting them up for lifelong healthy eating habits.
In New Zealand, the latest Health Survey figures reveal that over the last five years, children’s vegetable intake has declined across all ages, ethnicities and socio-economic groups, while fruit intake has plateaued. In fact, nearly half of children aged between 2 – 14 aren’t eating the recommended vegetable intake of two to three servings per day.
Good nutrition is essential for the normal growth, and physical and cognitive development of infants and children. Vegetables are a key component in a healthy, balanced diet and are a great source of fibre, as well as having lots of essential vitamins and minerals.
However, while adults care about health benefits, the key to getting children excited about vegetables is not about telling them how healthy it is, in fact, a research study published in the Journal of Consumer Research concluded that when children hear that food is healthy, they assume it isn’t tasty. The authors drew this conclusion based on a series of research studies on children between the ages of three – five.
With most children enrolled in some child care in the years before school, early childhood services are in a strong position to support children to develop good eating habits. Ensuring a wide range of vegetables is readily available and ensuring repeated exposure to vegetables from an early age is very important for a child to begin accepting and enjoying them.
How much do we need to eat?
New Zealand guidelines recommend five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, which is seen as a minimum requirement for good health. This is at least three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit.
Vegetable serving sizes:
- 1 medium potato or kumara
- 1/2 cup cooked vegetables
- 1/2 cup salad
How early childhood services can excite children to ‘veg-up’
Early childhood centres need to bring parents on board as partners to engage them with the ‘veg-up’ process at home and in the classroom. Children learn to accept new foods through role modelling, repetition and exposure. Communicate with parents, asking them for their ideas and sending home suggestions or recipes to help them teach their child about the wonderful world of vegetables.
Persistence, perseverance and patience are key ingredients, as you don’t want to get into a power struggle over veggies. Try to ensure a positive environment around eating and in all your efforts always praise children for trying small amounts of new veggies.
Here are five fun ideas boost the popularity and uptake of veggies in your service:
Fun with food days
Presentation is key and colour counts. ‘Eat the rainbow’ is a great starting point for food choices as it encourages variety. Importantly, children love rainbows and the vibrancy is appealing for children.
Different parts of vegetables including the skins, leaves and flowers provide fun and interesting options too. This creates a teaching experience where children can learn where a food comes from and which parts can be safely eaten.
As well as colour, look for fun ideas on how to present the food. Try serving up a range of veggies – whole or in shapes – and ask them to make a face on a plate or on a wholegrain muffin or pizza.
Grow your own or visit a local community garden
Gardens are an incredible teaching tool and can help children learn about science and nature as well as where their food comes from. A sure-fire plan to generate excitement in a developing a garden in your service is to involve children in every aspect of the process, from choosing what to grow, planting, watering, caring for the garden and picking the produce. Teach responsibility by assigning each child a watering, harvesting or weeding task and be sure to plant some reliable growers so children aren’t disappointed if there’s a crop fail.
Gardening exposes kids to a variety of fruits and vegetables so encourage taste testing straight from the garden – after a quick rinse to remove dirt – and at the meal table. Limited space? No problem! Use pots for foods such as tomatoes, salad greens and even cucumbers. Most herbs can grow in small pots on indoor windowsills.
Get kids in the kitchen
Try cooking in the classroom – ensure you’re following food and safety requirements – to involve children in their own meal preparation. A classroom kitchen can be created with just a few paper plates and select ingredients. Use a plug-in frypan (safely) to teach children how to follow an easy recipe while going through the steps of measuring, mixing and cooking.
Recipes like pancakes – with additions like carrot and zucchini – pasta salad or a spinach smoothie are easy and fun for children to make and eat. Try easy to make dips – plain yogurt, pumpkin and a dusting of cinnamon or mash avocado with a squeeze of lemon juice – to go with veggie sticks for a snack.
Sharing food with others can encourage even the fussiest of eaters to try new tastes. Select recipes appropriate for their developmental age and remember messy cooking can be more fun. Recipes should also connect with classroom projects and incorporate books to increase opportunities for discussion.
Set a good example
How do you get children to eat vegetables? Eat them yourself. We know that children are more likely to eat the foods their parents, peers, and teachers are eating. If they see you eat it, they’ll be more likely to try it. The eating environment should be warm and inviting, foods beautiful, fresh and appealing. Expose children to a diverse range of vegetables and teach them to expect veggies at snack and mealtimes.
Encourage families to ‘veg-up’ as the more vegetables the adults in their family eat, the more children are likely to eat. It’s not fair to expect children to eat veggies if the adults aren’t eating them as well! Research shows around 96 per cent of Australian adults aren’t eating enough vegetables per day so it’s a great time for everyone to ‘veg-up’.
Keep offering vegetables. It takes time to get used to new foods and children can be wary of anything unfamiliar. In many cases repeated tasting eventually leads to acceptance and liking. Encourage children’s their willingness to try new food. Ensure a selection of veggies are always available and, with challenging foods (such as mushrooms or green beans), try presenting them in different ways, such as incorporating them into mixed dishes rather than serving them on their own. Remember try not to pressure children to eat – the aim is to make it fun!
By making vegetables readily available and organising engaging activities around nutrition – including the growing, preparation and presentation – young children will be more likely to give vegetables a go.
References and additional resources
The Conversation: How to get children to eat a rainbow of fruit and vegetables