7 tips to get your family eating more vegetables - Part One
Aaagh...vegetables. That ol' can of beans! We all know that we need to eat more vegies and that we need to get our kids to do so too. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics National Health Survey, in 2014-2015 only 5.4% of Australian children consumed the recommended daily amount of vegetables (2-5serves a day depending on the age of your child). These are conservative guidelines too! They're designed to be the bare minimum to prevent disease. To function optimally we should ideally be feeding our kids 5-9 serves of vegetables daily!
It is far too simplistic to blame parents (easy targets), and say that they just need to feed their kids more vegetables. If it was this easy, then we'd all be doing it already and there would be no problem! I have written before about "setting the scene for healthy eating", which you can read here. In this new blog I will build on that information and unpack some of the hurdles that hold children back from eating more vegetables, and give you some tips to boost their intake (and your own at the same time!).
start wherever you already are. When you set out to make a change (if indeed you need to make a change), it is important to know your starting point. This can sometimes be a beautiful exercise when you realise just how well you are doing, but can also be a wake up call, when you realise you're not actually where you thought you were. Take heart, be brave and if you're not where you want to be, start wherever you are and start learning.
you need to keep making decisions about food every day, multiple times a day for the rest of your life! If this is stressful, then start by shifting this. You have plenty of time to get better at it, but do something, just give it a go.
If you want to be having more vegetables and yet your child will eat none at all, then a good start will be to simply place vegetables on the table. Let them get comfortable with the idea of vegetables before you expect them to eat 5 serves a day! If you already have plenty of vegetables in dinner, but rarely eat them for lunch, then start with adding an extra vegetable to your picnic.
there is no right way to do this, there is no "one-size-fits-all".
- Where will you source your vegetables? You can plant or grow them, but what about tonight's dinner? Start now with what you have on hand. Next time you're at the greengrocer, make a new choice.
Make a forest, a face, a monster on your plate. Be a monster and gobble the food. Focus on the crunch in your mouth or the squishiness of the food. Don't worry if your kid chews a bit and then spits out. The fact that the food has gone in at all is a start.
Make a new habit
Add vegetables to family routines. Always have an apple as an after swimming snack. Pack carrots when you go to the park, cook savoury foods when "baking" together.
Put out a tray of vegetables to snack on whilst dinner is cooking
Serve the vegetables first
Always include a vegetable or two onto a fruit platter and normalise vegetables as a snacking option.
If you're packing a lunchbox for kindergarten or a picnic, get a bento box and makes sure there are plenty of colours in the food.
The words you use to describe food matter. I often hear parents glorifying sweet treats, fried and junk foods and calling vegetables "yucky" during games. They then try to cajole and convince the same children that vegetables are "yummy" when it's dinner time! Even if you disagree with the words you're saying, over time your brain will start to respond and you'll start to see vegetables in a more positive light (because they can be truly delicious!).
When playing at the park or in the garden, adults will often instigate a game of "ice-cream shop" or "cake shop". This seems more fun and should be no problem for children who are happy eating a wide range of food. Why not suggest you create a "restaurant" or "café" instead and make "vegetable soup" or "spinach and ricotta pie"? You could serve "smoothies" or "sushi" made with mud, leaves and petals. Make "meatballs with sauce" or "stir-fry vegetables". Remember that it's important to play act how delicious these "foods" are, even if you don't yet believe that and it feels a little ridiculous to say it!
don't make assumptions about what they will or will not eat - food preferences is not a fixed thing. We all know kids who won't eat carrots at home, but will happily munch on them at grandma's house or childcare.
"dinner in our house means vegetables on the side, that's just what our family does"
"what do you think this vegetable is called? What will we call it? How should we cook it?"
keep experimenting - use a growth mindset and learn to see obstacles and set backs as a "learning opportunity" rather than a "failure" or a "waste of time".
If you are feeling anxious, nervous, stressed or unsure when you serve food to your child, they can easily pick up on these cues and start to feel anxious themselves, and can refuse what you have served them. Taking pressure off your children also takes pressure off yourself. Take a deep breath, sit down and relax with your kids while they eat. Eat with them too! The other jobs can wait. (and if they really can't wait, do you need to restructure your work/life balance? Or call in some extra help? Perhaps organise yourself a night off)
learn and experiment together so that eating/cooking is a shared experience.
If you have a dismal "learning opportunity" then just feed them whatever you need to get through that meal/day/week and rejig your plan for the next meal/day/week. Don't give up. It can take time to make changes so get up tomorrow and have another go!
Celebrate your victories - especially the small ones
take note when things go well for you! When you have a small measure of success (it could be as simple as your child didn't reject broccoli outright, but instead picked it up to examine it). Success doesn't have to be celebrated just when your child eats a brussel sprout, it can also come from looking at a vegetable, planting a seedling, pretending to cook vegetables, or even just touching a vegetable! I once worked with a boy who couldn't even look at broccoli without throwing a tantrum. He didn't even want it in the house and he had many food issues. Slowly we went from having it on the bench, to having it on the table to having it on his plate to him touching it, him pressing it to his lips then him having a tiny nibble before finally eating it. This whole process took weeks!
Get to know your vegetables
Order a "mystery" or "seasonal produce" box from an online delivery service. These are becoming more and more popular so it's likely there's a good option in your local area. When it arrives, let your kids help you unpack it and touch everything (we all know how much they love to touch everything!). Try and work out what all the vegetables actually are. This shows your children that you're learning and exploring together. Chat with your kids about how you might prepare the foods and get experimenting!
How do vegetables taste best to you? I like green beans blanched so they keep a little bit of crunch. I know that the nutrients in carrots are easier to absorb when the carrot is cooked (but not too mushy) and I prefer to eat it this way.
In Winter it makes more sense to cook vegetables so they are softer, warmer and easier to digest. In Summer crunchy salads make more sense. BUT! kids can be variable in their habits and desires, so go with what they feel like. I have worked with some children who love a crunch. They refuse to eat cooked vegetables but will happily munch on raw ones all day. Give this kid raw! I've also worked with children who will only eat cooked vegetables and do not like the feeling in their mouths of crunchy, raw vegetables. Go with what works.
Be brave, have a go, start experimenting and good luck with eating more vegetables! Recognise that it may not be that simple and be prepared to keep trying. You might just find that your own health improves in the process!