Having raised (well, dragged) two boys from birth up to a stage where they can walk, talk and fairly eloquently explain to me why they think I'm a bad parent, I have experienced the highs and lows of attempting to get them to first eat food; then eat good food, and finally eat good food willingly.
It's not something that we have consistently had success with but it's a topic we (as veg growers) have particular interest in, given the general aversion of primary-school-age kids to what we produce for a living.
I am by no means an expert, but based on my experience I have distilled 6 tips to share with other parents and carers on what we found worked for us and our children (not necessarily applicable to yours, but hopefully of interest nonetheless!).
When kids refuse to eat their greens, they’re not just being awkward for the sake of it. Children have 3 times as many taste buds in their mouths than adults and so foods taste far more intense to them. In addition, it is thought that they have a particular aversion to bitter flavours, such as the glucosinolates that give cabbage-family vegetables their sulphurous taste. So it is helpful to show understanding that leafy greens, for example, can be genuinely unpleasant for children in a way that adults don’t experience.
In her fantastic book First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, food writer Bee Wilson recommends the ‘tiny tastes’ approach to getting children used to challenging flavours. This involves giving very small amounts, outside of the context of a mealtime (which may have negative connotations with being forced to eat things that are unpleasant to them). For example, if I’m preparing a meal, I might cut a few extra small slices of something like kale or turnip to give to the kids to snack on while they play – and I have found that these boys who wouldn’t touch steamed kale enjoy nibbling a small amount. When serving up I always pout a very small amount of cooked greens on the boys’ plates, very much a token amount, that they can gobble down quickly, which helps get them used to the tastes without having a battle over larger amounts (see below: avoid mealtimes becoming a battleground).
In our household we have certain habits around meals that we have found help make them a pleasant experience for all. We always have a bowl of salad or some sliced raw veg in the centre of the table. We have found that over time our boys become inquisitive about the salad and like to try nibbling on small amounts, which works better than piling it up on their plates and insisting they eat it. We also always serve a leafy green with every meal, even though the boys will only get a tiny amount (see Tiny Tastes, above), just to instil that as a habit and help them get used to it.
We have found our kids to be infinitely more receptive to raw vegetables than cooked, even with challenging veg such as beetroot. That can be a better way in to tricky veg that forcing them to eat it cooked.
Wherever possible, engaging kids in growing their own veg can make them far more enthusiastic about eating it. It’s easy for me to say this as professional veg grower, but it’s something that can be doing on an allotment, back garden, or even radishes or salad leaves grown in a window box or pot. At the shortest-term ended of the spectrum , sprouting cress or other seeds takes just a few days and requires no soil at all; whilst to really learn na fantastic lesson in long-term commitment, we have initiated a giant pumpkin growing competition amongst some of the children at the local primary school which has them engrossed in the 5-month endeavour of pumpkin production.
The hardest but most important piece of advice for us. The modern lifestyle often means the family meal is in the evening when young kids are tired and less receptive to challenges. This is a contributing factor to mealtimes becoming a battle. We have found that having a positive atmosphere at a mealtime will do more in the long term to get them eating healthy than forcing perceived healthy foods into them despite resistance.
Dom van Marsh, August 2023