Caity Robertson’s four-year-old daughter Bernadette won’t eat any vegetables. She isn’t really a fan of fruit either, except orange juice (which her mom barely counts as fruit).
“We thought Bernadette would be our great eater, because she ate a wider variety of foods as a baby compared to her picky older sister,” says Robertson, a mom of three from Victoria, BC. “But one day when she was about one-and-a-half it was like a switch flipped and she no longer enjoyed cooked cut veggies, smoothies or even vegetable baby food pouches.”
Some kids go through a short phase of refusing veggies altogether, or will eat just one variety—say, cucumbers—without trying anything else. Others, like Bernadette, may go years without eating any vegetables at all, and have no plan to change their ways.
The good news is, this isn’t cause for panic. “I certainly encourage my patients to eat lots of veggies,” says Aaron Lindzon, a paediatrician in Toronto. “I also reassure parents that the kids who don't eat veggies will be just fine.”
Vegetables are important because they contain different nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and fibre, which are essential to normal growth and development. Some of these nutrients also play a role in warding off chronic diseases, like hypertension, heart disease and cancer.
But, these vitamins and minerals can be found in a wide array of foods beyond vegetables, including fruit, whole grains, beans and poultry, which means that kids can still get the essential fuel they need even if they won’t eat broccoli and zucchini. Whether a lack of vegetables affects a child’s nutrition really depends what the rest of the diet is like, says Columbus, OH.-based dietitian Sally Kuzemchak from Real Mom Nutrition.
Also, having vegetables in your kid’s diet is only one factor when considering their overall health. What matters more is the whole lifestyle, which includes diet, but also physical activity, sleep, adequate fluid intake and more.
Big picture: If your kid’s meals come almost exclusively from ultra-processed foods—think boxed pasta, pizza, cookies and no vegetables—they may fall short of vitamins, minerals and fibre. This could lead to constipation, digestive issues and vitamin deficiencies. But if a kid refuses vegetables and still eats a variety of other whole foods like fruit, grains, beans, nuts, dairy, fish and meat, and gets plenty of sleep, exercise and time outdoors, they are still leading a healthy lifestyle.
Some kids who hate vegetables make up for the missing nutrients by eating fruit. “Veggies and fruit are lumped into the same nutritional category because they contain many of the same vitamins and minerals,” says Lindzon. “So, in this scenario, it is fine for kids to get by without the veggies (if they eat fruit) and there will be no health consequences.”
If your kid, like Bernadette, doesn’t enjoy fruit either, they could fall short on vitamin C, potassium and fibre, particularly if the rest of their diet isn't that diverse. “For kids who refuse fruits AND veggies, I usually recommend a multivitamin to ensure adequate vitamin and mineral intake,” says Lindzon.
Robertson offers her daughter a multivitamin powder, which Bernadette likes to sprinkle on her peanut butter sandwiches. “She won’t eat jelly,” says Robertson. “But she helps us make the sandwich and chooses the supplement as an ingredient.” This gives Robertson peace of mind that Bernadette is getting the nutrients she needs.
While supplements add more vitamins and minerals to the diet, they can’t perfectly mimic the intricate plant chemicals (phytochemicals) and antioxidants in vegetables and fruit. “There's a lot of research around the health benefits of various phytochemicals in vegetables,” says Kuzemchak. She says research shows that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some kinds of cancer.
That’s why continued exposure to vegetables is vital, in hopes that one day your child will learn to enjoy them. “I preach patience to the parents and encourage them to keep trying,” says Lindzon.
At first, your kid may ignore the vegetables you offer, but some days they may sniff, touch or try what’s on their plate. And one day they may surprise you by actually enjoying celery or kale. Eating behaviours develop through social learning during childhood, so practice being a good role model. If you fill half your plate with vegetables, your kids are more likely to eventually follow suit.
Make sure you don’t force kids to eat vegetables, or bribe them with promises like: “If you eat cauliflower, you can have candy.” This can make mealtime unpleasant, and won’t help children build a healthy relationship with food.
You may have heard that it’s vital to get kids eating veggies from a young age, because good eating habits carry into adulthood. That’s a great plan, but it doesn’t always work out for every child—and that’s okay. It’s also entirely possible for veggie-hating kids to develop a taste for them when they are older.
“Tastes change throughout life,” says Kuzemchak.“Children may gravitate toward sweet flavours, and that preference for sweetness may naturally dull with age as taste buds change.” She also adds that as kids venture out on their own–when eating at a friend’s house, restaurant, summer camp and eventually college—they will experience cultural pressures to eat certain foods, or will see friends who like vegetables, which may override their years of stubborn refusal.
Until then, some parents wonder if it’s a good idea to sneak veggies into meals. Kuzemchak says you can certainly puree vegetables and add them to sauces or smoothies if you think the nutrients are needed, or if it will give you peace of mind. “But remember it's not a substitute for serving the real deal and it doesn't help kids get familiar with the texture and flavour of vegetables,” she says. “And once your kid has flown the nest, she probably won't be pureeing cauliflower into her macaroni and cheese.”
Sneaking in veggies isn’t an option for Robertson, since Bernadette favours plain food—it’s not easy to hide squash in a bowl of plain pasta. But persistence pays off; Bernadette recently licked a cucumber and a tomato, so maybe a little bite is next.
This article was originally published online in June 2019.