It’s dinner time and your little one leaves yet another plate untouched, shaking their head and shouting “yuck” at the pile of broccoli before them. The mere mention of trying one bite sends your toddler into a frenzy of “no’s” and a series of disgusted facial expressions as they push away their plate. Do you stand there perplexed, wondering how to get toddlers to eat vegetables? Does this scene sound all too familiar?
If you said yes, you’re not alone. While early childhood marks a time of wonder, laughs, and adventure—for many of us, it is also a time of never-ending mealtime battles and standoffs at the dinner table.
Surprisingly enough, picky eating is actually quite normal behavior between the ages of two to five while taste-buds and lasting eating preferences are still being established. But, don’t worry—this too shall pass. Research shows most children will outgrow their picky-eating tendencies, especially if parents intervene before the age of four.
Causes of Picky Eating
Before we dive in on how to get toddlers to eat vegetables and strategies for fussy eaters, it’s important to first understand the different causes of picky eating in childhood.
- Slowed growth rate: During the toddler years, growth rate begins to slow down to a steadier rate, as opposed to the rapid growth in the first year of life. As a result, their appetite often declines as well. This explains why some parents may notice their child who once ate anything and everything is suddenly full after two bites.
- Desired control: Another common cause of picky eating may not have anything to do with taste at all and instead has everything to do with your child simply wanting control. Between the ages of two to five years, your child is experiencing their first sweet taste of independence—and turning up their nose at the peas you served for dinner is just another way for your toddler to exercise that newly discovered freedom.
- Normal development: Finally, a certain level of fussy-ness is to be expected when introducing new and unfamiliar foods, flavors, and textures to your child. Playing with, smelling, and touching food are all normal developmental behaviors as your toddler explores a new food and decides whether they like it or not.
13 Tips to Help Picky Toddlers Eat More Vegetables
In most cases, picky eating is just a phase for many toddlers. But, to help you weather the picky eating storm in the meantime, we’ve gathered up the top ten tips and tricks to transform even the fussiest of eaters into one not afraid to try new foods.
1. Indulge Their Independence and Offer Choices
Your child may be rejecting that plate of green beans not because they don’t like the taste, but because refusing to eat them is a way for them to exert power and run the dinnertime show.
Trick your little one into thinking they’re calling the shots by providing them choices when mealtime rolls around. Instead of asking your child if they would like broccoli for dinner, provide a choice and ask, “Would you like broccoli, green beans, or peas for dinner?”
Let your child choose where they would like each food served to go on their plate. Another way to help your child feel in control is to offer finger-foods that your child can easily feed themselves with.
2. Be a Role Model
The famous saying, “monkey see monkey do” holds true in toddlerhood, especially when it comes to your child’s food preferences. Children learn by imitating the actions of those around them. Your little one is most likely watching your every move, and the dinner table is no exception!
If you want your child to eat their plate of broccoli, it’s important that you eat it too. A great way to model the eating behaviors you want your child to assume is by eating the same meal all together as a family. Share how delicious the broccoli is as you take a bite—and your toddler may just be more likely to follow suit!
The more you demonstrate healthy eating behaviors, the greater the chance they will rub off on your child.
3. Involve Your Child in the Cooking Process
Children are more likely to try a new food if they helped prepare it! Have your child help add and stir ingredients, rinse or scrub fruits and vegetables, pick herbs off the stem, mix a batter, or even paint on cooking oil with a pastry brush. The options are endless.
Make cooking even more exciting for your budding sous-chef by providing them with their own special set of kitchen tools such as colorful measuring cups or even their own apron. Taste while you cook together—mention the different colors, textures, and shapes of the flavors and ingredients. Involve all the senses!
The more your toddler tastes, smells, and handles a new food, the more comfortable they will feel trying it at the dinner table.
4. Keep on Trying
Research shows it can take up to 10-20 exposures to a new food before your child learns to accept and like a new food. Now, exposure doesn’t just mean tasting, but includes any time your child sees, touches, or even smells the new food. The takeaway here is to have patience—it may take several times before your toddler decides they like or dislike a certain food.
5. Vary It Up
Instead of repeatedly offering that same plate of steamed carrots—switch up the way you prepare and offer new foods. Be creative! For example:
- Serve carrot fries one night, crinkled cut carrots the next time, and then carrot “chips” the next.
- Does your child LOVE French fries? If so, make veggie “French fries” and serve with a tasty dairy-free dip.
- Maybe your toddler is a pizza-fanatic –you might try offering some oven-baked zucchini “pizza bites” with tomato sauce and nutritional yeast or dairy-free mozzarella cheese.
- Add ketchup, dips, or sauces. Do I think it’s a bit gross that my kiddo puts ketchup on butternut squash? Kind of – but if it helps him eat it, I’m fine with that!
Serving an unfamiliar food in a familiar way is a trick to help your toddler be more apt to take a bite of what you are offering.
6. Make it Fun
Present vegetables in inviting ways through the way you serve it and refer to it. For example:
- Cut veggies into fun shapes (cookie cutters are great for this!).
- Arrange food in playful designs and patterns on your child’s plate such as in the shape of a rainbow, star, heart, or even first letter of your child’s name.
- Make a smiley out of the veggie of your choice and ask your child what they are going to eat first: the nose, the mouth, or the eyes.
- Give foods fun names to entice your child such as apple smiles, green bean dragon toes, or x-ray vision carrots.
- Make food look more appetizing by placing in brightly colored bowls, plates or on a colorful placemat.
7. Dial Down On the Drinks
Some children may not be eating because they are drinking many of their calories throughout the day, causing them to feel full. Too much juice, soda, or even dairy-free milk may be the culprit behind your little one’s poor appetite.
To prevent over-indulging in the drink department, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping juice to around 4 ounces per day for kids age 1 to 3, and around 4 to 6 ounces per day for kids age 4 to 6. They also recommend avoiding sodas or sports drinks all together in this age group.
8. Offer Age-Appropriate Portions
Toddlers have tiny tummies and only need about ¼ the size of an adult’s portion. A good rule of thumb is to offer 1 tablespoon per year of age for each type of food offered. This small amount is not overwhelming to the toddler and may encourage them to eat their food.
It might not seem like a lot, but small children are actually quite good at paying attention to hunger and fullness cues. They will let you know if they’re still hungry after eating that initial serving.
9. Mix Veggies into Other Foods
I’m a firm believer in continuing to serve veggies in whole food form so that your child gets used to seeing and tasting them that way. But there’s also no harm in blending veggies into other dishes in addition to that!
For example, try one of these ideas:
- Add leafy greens, frozen cauliflower rice, or cooked beets to smoothies
- Stir mashed butternut squash in dairy-free mac and cheese
- Puree zucchini and carrots into pasta sauce
- Shred vegetables like carrots and zucchini into meatloaf
- Add pureed pumpkin, butternut squash, or sweet potatoes into waffles or pancakes
- Blend mushrooms with beef for veggie-packed burger patties
10. Resist the Urge to be the “Food Police”
Sometimes the more we force, nag, or bribe our child to eat, the more our child resists. Rather than pressuring your child to just eat a few more bites, which can often backfire and lead to even worse picky eating habits—relinquish the need for control and focus on instead making mealtimes a more positive experience.
Nationally recognized feeding expert, Ellyn Satter, recommends divvying up the responsibility during mealtimes between parents and child where parents decide the what, when, and where meals are served, and the child determines the how much to eat and whether to eat what is offered.
Her approach, which targets improving the eating habits of fussy eaters, has been recommended as a top feeding practice by The Academy of Pediatrics, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, WIC, and the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Read more on Ellyn Satter’s approach here.
11. When in Doubt, Pair It
When offering a new or unfamiliar food, serve it with a food you know your child likes. Present a bite-sized portion of the new food alongside a normal serving size of the favorite food. It’s important to start small (like one broccoli spear small) to make new foods inviting rather than overwhelming.
You can also think about pairing a veggie-based addition to a normal food. For example, if your child loves tortilla chips as a snack, you can try serving it with bean dip, mild salsa, or dairy-free spinach artichoke dip to add some veggies to the snack.
Once everything is on their plate, be sure to play it cool– because the less interested you act in whether or not they take a bite, the more interested your child will be in exploring that new food on their plate.
12. Try Food Chaining
Food chaining is a concept I learned from a fellow dietitian, Megan Boitano. Food chaining starts with a food your toddler is comfortable with, and then changes it very slightly. If that change is palatable, another is made the next time. The goal is to continue to make very small changes until you’ve expanded their palate.
For example, let’s say your child loves store-bought tator tots. Maybe next time, you get the store-bought tator tots that are a blend of potatoes and broccoli. After that, maybe you try homemade tator tots with a blend. From there, you try a fully broccoli-based tot.
You can read more in Megan’s post about food chaining.
13. Don’t Forget About Fruit
I know this article is about how to get toddlers to eat vegetables, but remember that fruit also offers many of the same nutritional benefits. Both vegetables and fruits can be a source of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
For example, carrots contain beta-carotene (the precursor to Vitamin A) – but cantaloupe can also help your kiddo meet their needs. Similarly, cooked tomatoes are a good source of a key phytochemical called lycopene – but so is watermelon.
There are some differences in nutrition composition and fruit does contain more natural sugar. But for short bouts of picky eating, I just like to reinforce that fruit can help meet many of your child’s nutrient needs. Of course, continue to serve the vegetables and follow the tips here and you’ll see progress over time.
A Final Word
I hope these tips help you learn how to get toddlers to eat vegetables and adopt healthier eating habits so that you can finally turn the corner on the picky eating phase once and for all. Remember, it may take several attempts before your child learns to like a new food- so be patient, trust in the process, and focus on making mealtimes positive and fun!
Above all, take some of the pressure off yourself to make sure your child’s diet is precisely perfect, and just know that by trying your best to serve a variety of nutritious choices, you’re doing a great job. 🙂