What to do when a toddler won’t eat vegetables

Modeling is a great way to entice a hesitant toddler to try vegetables.

Toddlers often have an ambivalent relationship with vegetables. It’s a common issue that many parents face. So, what do you do when a toddler won’t eat their vegetables?

Exploring Leads to Eating

There is no way to make a child eat the veggies but we can encourage exploration. Rather than consume the food right away, we want the child to choose to explore vegetables and eventually taste them. Over time, they will decide if they like it. Consider the following strategies to help the child choose to explore and taste the foods. 

Environment

The eating environment sets the stage and situation for a child’s willingness to explore, taste, and eventually eat food they are reluctant about. In all the strategies below, remain calm and confident and keep the pressure low. 

  • Remove the power: The more you want it, the more power you give to the vegetable refusal. Imagine for a moment there is a cupcake on the dinner plate and the child opted for the rice and chicken instead—you know eventually they’ll go for the cupcake, realize it’s delicious, and likely add cupcakes to their list of accepted and enjoyed foods. Channel that same vibe for veggies—know that it really doesn’t matter if the child eats the vegetables or not, and at some point they’ll decide to eat them because they are delicious and familiar. 
  • Set the scene. Kids are more likely to explore and try something new when they are calm, organized, and feeling safe. Set the scene with soft music, dim lights, and a clear table or eating space. Remember to model a calm demeanor, as well. 
  • Model. Kids often let their guard down when they see parents or caregivers doing something. Eat with the child and let them watch you eat the same foods you want them to eat. 

Generate Curiosity

Toddlers are naturally curious about the world around them but often that natural curiosity gets squashed at the table. Silliness, questions, and engagement can all rekindle curiosity and encourage a child to pay attention to the vegetables. 

  • Fun and silly questions or observations. Children are more likely to try something new and enjoy it when having fun, being silly, and tapping into their inherent curiosity and drive to learn. Engage their fun, silly curiosity with questions like:
    • “My broccoli trees are different sizes. Do you have a biiiig broccoli tree?” 
    • Pick up two pieces of broccoli from your plate and say, “Look! This broccoli tree is a mama-size tree and this is her baby! Do you have a grandpa tree?” 
    • With foods like mashed potatoes, try something like, “You poked the potatoes. I am going to poke mine too. Oops! Now my finger is wearing a potato hat.”
    • Put different foods together and say something like, “My broccoli trees stand up in my mashed potatoes. How about yours?”
  • Complete a task. Engage a child’s natural desire to learn with a task like adding cheese or butter to the food. Say, “Ahh, I forgot to add cheese to the broccoli! Can you sprinkle some of this cheese on there?” or “Here’s a little butter, please mix it into the potatoes.”

Beyond the table

Because there is some natural toddler hesitation around new foods or vegetables at the table, offer exploration away from the table to increase a toddler’s willingness to touch and explore vegetables. 

  • Cook together. Cook and prepare a meal together, which allows a child to explore and touch vegetables without the pressure or expectation to eat. Have the child help wash and prepare veggies. Give them the job of rinsing or drying. Ask them to tear kale leaves, break asparagus stalks, smash potatoes, or mix vegetables, oil, and seasonings together. Put on some music, stay close to the child, and have fun. As the child is helping, occasionally pick out a bite and taste it so they see the action as an option. Don’t ask them to try or taste the food, but know that if they watch you do it, they might join in. 
  • Veggies and dip snack. Offer veggies away from the table when pressure to eat is very low. Serve a veggie snack plate at key times of day —around 3-4 p.m. is a great time when most toddlers are searching for a snack. Include a dip like hummus, ranch, peanut butter, or even chocolate sauce or ketchup. Show the child how to dip the veggies. They might just play—that’s okay. No need to offer daily; once in a while is great. 

These strategies won’t make a child eat veggies and it likely won’t change their eating behavior immediately. However, over time, they will grow less and less skeptical of the vegetables and more curious to examine them. Examining or exploring is key—as they examine the food, most kids will eventually decide to take small tastes. Each small taste is one step closer to liking, eating, and enjoying vegetables. 

In the throes of picky eating? Check out our webinar on how to reverse picky eating

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