Nutrition Australia is reminding us during National Nutrition Week to ‘Try for 5’ serves of vegetables a day. Why? Because vegetables are nutrient rich and simply central to a diet that will promote good health. Professor Karen Campbell, Associate Professor in population nutrition at Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, offers tips to make mealtimes healthier.
It can be hard for adults to reach the recommended five serves a day (in fact, most of us only eat around half of this amount), so its perhaps not surprising that many parents feel at a loss when it comes to getting their children to eat any vegetables at all. Australian children eat very few vegetables, but we can fix this!
Here’s nine things you can do this week (and beyond) that will help you and your child(ren) enjoy more vegetables more often, so that you’ll all be on the way to five a day.
- Offer vegetables early and always
Children learn to like food that is offered to them repeatedly, so start a child’s vegetable journey from the time they begin solids – at around 6 months of age. From this time you can offer vegetables that have been cooked and mashed – or alternatively, offer softened (cooked) finger shaped pieces of vegetables. Keeping vegetables separate (not mixed together) increases a child’s exposure to a wide range of tastes and textures. Try to offer vegetables at most meals and snacks, See here for information regarding the right number of serves and for some great tips from Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition Infant Program.
- Make vegetables accessible
It’s one thing to have vegetables in the fridge, but to get kids interested in eating them you’ll need to take them out of the fridge and onto a plate. Children often prefer raw veggies, so when preparing vegetables for dinner, cut up extra and offer raw veggies to your children. Cut up even more and store them for snacks for the following day. Efficient!
- Involve your children in buying, growing and preparing vegetables
Getting your children to spend time doing things with veggies increases their familiarity with them and makes them a normal part of daily life rather than something special or to be suspicious of. From an early age children can help with chopping softer vegetables like zucchinis, and breaking cauliflower and broccoli into florets (“little trees”), mixing salads, chopping the ends off beans, shelling peas. Involving children in food preparation is a great way to increase their confidence with cooking and to share the labour of getting food to the table.
- Ignore food rejection – it comes and goes
Children will frequently spit out a new food – veggies included. This is totally normal and is thought to reflect a protective mechanism – the body doesn’t know this taste and so rejects it in case it’s bad. So, spitting food out does not necessarily mean that a child doesn’t like the food – it just means that they’re a bit suspicious of it. Repeatedly offering new foods (the science says up to 15 times), particularly alongside foods you know your child enjoys, will increase your child’s acceptance of that food. It just takes some time and confidence. Remember, a child won’t ever learn to enjoy or prefer a food that is not on offer.
- Avoid food battles – you won’t win the battle or the war
Food battles come about because you want one thing (e.g. for them to eat their broccoli) and your child wants another (quite possibly because you want one thing!). If you don’t engage in a battle, there is no battle. So, for example, if your baby/toddler/child refused to eat their dinner – resist the temptation to coerce, cajole or beg them to eat. Simply don’t get involved. Say little, and when the family meal is finished, remove the meal – AND, most importantly, resist the desire to offer some other food. This brief video from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition Infant Program tackles this issue head on.
- You need to Try for 5 serves of vegetables each day
You are your child’s food intake role model – they’ll learn to enjoy what you enjoy. So go for five serves of vegetables a day. Eating a wide range of vegetables every day will be sensational for your health and will provide a great reinforcer to your child that vegetables are an everyday food that are good to eat. Eating 5 serves of vegetables every day makes this a normal, expected part of daily life.
- Plan ahead – think about how you can include vegetables in meals and snacks
If increasing veggies in your meals is your plan, then you’ll need to plan for this! The best plans in the world fall over through lack of preparation. The preparation here is simple, make a plan each week for your meals and how you aim to add vegetables to these. Click here for some planning ideas. You could also plan a meat free meal each week – this will ensure that vegetables get pride of place – and if you’re not sure what a meat free meal looks like, you’ll find lots of inspiration here or simply search the net for Meat-free Mondays. Planning to include vegetables in every meal helps you to make sure you’ll purchase them every week.
- Buy vegetables in season and help them stay fresher for longer
Limit the cost of veg by buying in season or choosing the frozen version when the fresh is too expensive (e.g. peas and beans). You’ll know when a vegetable is in season because it will be cheap! You can also check out these guides to seasonality for each state. Click here for some great tips on keeping your vegetables fresher for longer – really important to do, given the fear of wasting food (and the money it took to buy it) is one reason why people don’t buy more vegetables
- Learn to cook vegetables in tasty and appealing ways – talk to your friends about tips for making veggies taste great
Many people feel like they don’t know how to cook vegetables well and here’s where friends and family can be a great asset. Ask a friend how they do it – and build your repertoire of great tasting vegetable recipes. This might include simple ways to cook left over veggies so they won’t be wasted (see here for our hints), or finding new ways to make your old recipes new again with the inclusion of lots of extra veggies– e.g. a spaghetti bolognese or stew with added veggies/ tinned kidney beans or chickpeas. See here for great examples of how you can extend your cooking repertoire to include more vegetables every day.
Associate Professor – Population Nutrition, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University