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When my daughter, Jane, was 18 months old or so, our family got into the habit of “toasting” with vegetables—raising, say, a tender roasted carrot slice to the middle of the dinner table instead of our glasses. It added some fun to mealtimes, and it reassured Jane that this deeply suspicious new item on her plate was OK, since we were all eating it at the same time.
Parents know veggies—packed with important nutrients and fibre—are important. And although they can sometimes be a tough sell for toddlers, who may not like the texture, bitterness or unusual flavours, experts agree that serving them often and from a young age is best. “Parents may try two or three times and then give up,” says Jennifer House, a registered dietitian and mom of three. But studies show that your kid may need to try a new vegetable 10 to 15 times over a number of meals before she accepts it. And it’s worth noting that there’s an important window in the under-24-months age range: Researchers have found that, developmentally speaking, kids under age two are down with trying more new foods than those between two and six.
So just how many vegetables does your kid need to eat in a day? Canada’s Food Guide recommends four daily servings of fruit and vegetables for kids ages two and three—and the new food guide, due this year, is expected to emphasize more plant-based foods overall. (There aren’t existing recommendations for the 12- to 24-month age group, so it’s fine to offer smaller servings of vegetables at meals, says House, noting that you can give your toddler more if she wants it.) For example, add ¼ cup of thinly sliced raw cucumber, ¼ cup of cooked veggies like broccoli or cauliflower and ½ cup of tomato sauce, and you’ve got two full servings. And if your toddler only likes fruit, that’s fine too, says House, as long as you continue to offer vegetables regularly, even if she doesn’t eat them. Have a veggie resister on your hands? Here are some ways to get them interested in eating veggies.
There’s no need to start with “easy” vegetables like corn and work your way up to Brussels sprouts, says House. “Offer a little bit of whatever the family is eating, and keep trying different forms, too: mashed, baked, pan-fried or raw,” she says. Easy-to-handle portions are appealing. Also remember that hard, raw vegetables like carrots and celery are a choking hazard for kids under four, so grate or finely slice them. Cut cherry tomatoes into halves or quarters, and chop cooked veggies like cauliflower into half-inch pieces.
When Lynda Gellner’s son, Hunter, was two, she took him to the grocery store to see, hold and choose vegetables, and it got him interested in trying new ones. Other ideas to spark an interest: Visit a farm or farmers’ market and talk to the farmer; grow your own peas or beans; help your toddler wash vegetables or spin lettuce dry; or read a veggie-themed book, such as Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert.
There’s no need for vegetables to be naked. Butter, dips, tossed with maple syrup or an apricot glaze: Moderate amounts of these additions are all fine, says House. “I can put pretty much anything into a patty and my kids will devour it,” says Lisa Moran, mom of three. She grates vegetables like carrots and beets, mixes in a bit of beaten egg and flour, and pan-fries kid-sized patties. Bonus: Her toddler, Rosalie, takes them in her daycare lunch the next day as finger food.
Little kids love any opportunity to show how strong they are, so play to that when you’re talking about food. When Debra Leitner’s son, Talon, was two, she would “remind him that veggies give him power, just like Spider-Man.” And Chelan Wilkins has also played up the strength factor since her daughters, Grace and Sophie, were toddlers. Whenever she made fruit smoothies, the girls were happy to add spinach or celery when she called them “our veggies that make us super strong.”
“I don’t like the idea of hiding vegetables, because sooner or later kids will figure it out and not trust you,” says House. “It’s fine to purée vegetables and add them to a recipe, but just be up front about it and say, ‘We’re having sweet potato pancakes.’” Like many nutrition experts, House is in favour of the “division of responsibility” approach: You are responsible for what, when and where your child eats, and your child is responsible for choosing whether he’s going to eat and how much. Yes, even when it comes to vegetables.
And as for our vegetable “toasting” strategy, we had some success: Sometimes Jane ate them and sometimes she didn’t, but we’re now a few years past the toddler stage, and she’s still a pretty good veggie eater. Cheers to that.
This article was originally published online in January 2018.