Friends of ours often comment on my daughter’s penchant for veggies. She’s almost 23 months and has been enjoying veggies since she was six months old. She requests them for snacks and meals. At least half of what she eats in a given day consists of raw fruits, vegetables, and sprouted legumes. When she sees me eating a salad, she sticks her hand in the bowl, pulls out some leaves, and munches away.
I’m excited to share the strategies I’ve used for almost two years now to encourage my daughter’s interest in whole foods, particularly raw veggies and sprouts. I’ve learned that starting early and being consistent are key. Every child and family situation is different, and what works for ours may not work for another, but perhaps some of these strategies will work for your little ones:
1) Expose baby to veggies in utero and during infancy : I ate lots of veggies throughout my pregnancy (after morning sickness subsided, of course!) and while I was exclusively nursing her. I believe that exposing her in the womb and then through breast milk to various flavors of fresh, whole foods, helped her develop taste buds that are keen on veggies, fruits, and legumes. If you don’t have boobs (i.e. dads and soon-to-be dads), encourage your partner’s healthy eating by making her veggie dishes and salads she will enjoy–the benefits will trickle down!
2) Baby’s first foods should be veggies, then fruits: When it comes to first foods, start with veggies (and bananas are great, too). There is no rule that says that you need to start kids on cereal first. In fact, Dr Sears, and more and more pediatricians recommend avocados as the perfect first food. Why not let your infants start their exploration into food and flavors with the healthy, whole, from-the-ground stuff instead of the highly processed stuff? If I were constantly fed cereals, I probably wouldn’t develop much of a taste for veggies, either. Carbs are just too addictive.
My daughter’s first foods were avocado and banana. The great thing about these two foods is that they are not only nutritious, but are soft enough to be eaten raw (for full nutritional value) by an infant. After eating these for a month or so (while still nursing), we introduced her to other veggies, like cooked butternut squash, carrots, and peas. Then we went on to pea shoots, baby greens, lentils, quinoa, and some fruit.
Some people swear that kids should be exposed to veggies before fruits, because once they taste the sweet fruity stuff, they won’t want to go back. I agree for the most part, though I believe that bananas are an exception. They are an excellent first food for any baby. Bananas continue to be one of my daughter’s favorite foods and I am TOTALLY ok with that!
3) Eat the way you want your child to eat: Modeling is so crucial. Demonstrate the healthy eating habits that you want your child to acquire. When we have dinner as a family, there’s nearly always a raw salad on the table, plus cooked veggies or legumes. Your child will mimic your habits, good and bad, so try to make them good!
4) Lead with veggies: Whenever it’s time for a meal or a snack, I offer veggies first (assuming it’s convenient to do so). If you offer a sandwich, pasta, or other processed food first, they’ll definitely say yes to that, fill up, and you can forget the veggies!
5) Make it interesting and fun: Lately, to keep up her interest, I’ve been giving my daughter her veggies along with a healthy dip, like humus, guacamole, or salsa. She is really enjoying exploring different dips and loves sticking her cut veggies into the gooey stuff. If you prefer to cook, lightly saute your veggies in different sauces and flavors. Do you have other creative ideas? Share them in the comments section, please!
6) Encourage her savory tooth instead of her sweet tooth: Sweet foods tend to be worse for you and more addictive than savory foods, so I rather my kids enjoy the latter when they’re in the mood for a treat. The treats I keep in the house for my daughter (and for her parents 🙂 ) are chips. I’m not talking Frito-Lay. I buy the kind you find in a health food aisle: non-GMO, often organic, always baked (never fried), and usually made out of lentil flour, corn and/or a mix of whole grains. My favorite brands are Food Should Taste Good, R W Garcia, and Mediterranean Snacks.
7) Don’t proactively offer sweets…: Our culture associates special occasions with high-sugar and high-fat foods. I think I speak for the vast majority of people when I say that a birthday is not a birthday until some cake, cookies and other treats have been eaten. But no child is born with the belief that special occasions and treats must go together: this is a product of nurture, not nature! Your child doesn’t know that she’s meant to have cake or ice cream on her first birthday, so why go out of your way to encourage it? The need to eat unhealthy to celebrate is OUR need–i.e. the parents’ need–not the child’s need! So celebrate with some fruit, yogurt, or whole grain baked good, instead–your kid will not know any better. Better yet, just have a healthy meal, find a way to incorporate a candle, sing happy birthday, open presents, and call it a day. I actually baked a gluten-free carrot-chocolate cake for my daughter’s first birthday party that got rave reviews from guests. She didn’t even look at it, so I didn’t offer it to her, and she still had the best time.
8) …but don’t deprive your child–give them a treat when they ask for it: I don’t proactively offer sweets (per #7), but if my daughter asks for a treat–usually when we are at a social affair where we are surrounded by junk food and desserts–she often gets it. You’re shocked, right? Yes, most times my daughter asks for a food, I give it to her. Sometimes I’ll try to distract her from her request. But, if she insists, I give her what she wants. My only exceptions are candy and gummies (because they’re made of pure corn syrup), and dried fruit (because these stick to the teeth, and until she lets me help her brush her teeth, she ain’t getting any!).
Here is my reasoning: If you say no, your child will only desire it more (this is a universal truth). And, I’d prefer my child to explore foods under my watchful gaze, so I can impose limits, than let her get older and start exploring on her own. The good news: because I’ve followed the strategies listed here, half the time she doesn’t ask for treats when she sees them. And when she does, I offer her some, and she ends up eating just a small portion! So it’s a win-win.
9) Keep fruit juices and sugary drinks out of the house or hidden: It’s no secret that kids these days are addicted to sweet drinks, especially juices, that have a high sugar content. If you don’t keep juice, candy, or other sugary treats around, your child won’t be used to seeing them, and won’t start to believe that there is anything special about them. They won’t know to ask for them if they don’t see you consuming them! We have some cookies and ice cream, which we break out when she’s asleep 🙂
It’s been so gratifying to watch my daughter become a healthy eater. Granted, she’s still an only child and young enough that I still have control over her environment a majority of the time. As she spends more and more time away from her parents and with her peers, I’m sure I’ll encounter new and different challenges around eating healthy. But, hopefully, by the that time, at least some of her good habits will have stuck 🙂
What are your own tips to encourage healthy eating?