When babies suddenly turn into picky toddlers overnight, refusing their favorite maple-roasted carrots and tossing their butternut squash fries on the floor, the idea of hiding veggies in their food is super tempting. It’s almost too easy: mixing riced cauliflower into regular rice, blending mashed sweet potato into muffin batter, or baking black bean into brownies. But is sneaking vegetables into your kid’s food actually the best way forward? 

We want our kids to like veggies because there are so many reasons to. They’re yummy, they can be prepared in so many different ways, and they’re packed with essential vitamins and minerals that do so many awesome things for our bodies. But hiding them without disclosure can be tricky, fostering a sense of distrust that can backfire in the long run. Instilling a love of vegetables (or, at times, a tolerance) involves understanding their ever-evolving preferences and establishing an appreciation for veggies as they are—not disguised in smoothies, mac and cheese, or cookies (though these are all totally fine if you tell your littles what they’re eating).

Instead of trying to pull a fast one on your children by slipping vegetables into their meals undetected, let’s explore some more effective strategies to increase the likelihood that your kiddo will eat them. 

Variety is the spice of life

Regularly switch up the way you serve veggies. Roast cauliflower instead of steaming it or cut zucchini into half moons rather than thin spears. Your kiddo might be avoiding steamed cauliflower because it’s too mushy, and rejecting zucchini spears because, well, toddlers being toddlers! Another approach is to flavor your veggies differently. Maybe your little is bored of garlic-sesame green beans (how dare they?!), so experiment with new flavor profiles using zaatar, mild curry, soy sauce, or ghee. Lots of toddlers love the act of dipping, so throw some creamy ranch on the side of raw veggie sticks. The key here is to vary the texture, flavor, and presentation.

Serve vegetables alongside favorite foods 

Create a sense of safety and comfort with the unknown by serving veggies alongside (not hidden in) their favorite dishes. Kids will often reject new foods because they feel overwhelmed by the novelty. If you plop a piece of roasted eggplant on their plate, it might make them feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed and they’ll likely turn it down. However, if you present the roasted eggplant alongside their favorite fruit or pasta, they may feel more comfortable at mealtime, increasing the likelihood that they’ll eat it. It’s not an instant magical solution, but your kiddo has a better chance of trying something new if they feel at ease at the table.

Ease into veggies by having some fun

Another way to make veggies less intimidating is to introduce them without the expectation that they be eaten right away. Make them fun by setting up creative art projects like crafting rainbow veggie kabobs or making smiley faces out of broccoli, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Build towers with carrots and cucumbers, explore gardening, or let them pick out a new vegetable at the grocery store. The key is to approach veggies in a laid-back manner—no pressure necessary!

Consider taking on a sous chef (or three)

Involving your kids in the kitchen allows them to experience food in a new, interactive way. Try kicking off your cooking adventures with a field trip to the grocery store to pick out ingredients. They can help you prep the grocery list and find the items at the store. Then, put your kids to work peeling, spinning the salad spinner, whirring the blender, or chopping (I love these kid-friendly knives!). They can also help keep track of when dishes are ready and assist in serving them when it’s time to eat. The whole experience gives them a glimpse into a food’s journey from the grocery shelves to the plate.

Try a little exposure therapy 

The more opportunities your kiddo has to engage with veggies, the better, as it helps them become more familiar with the food. Regularly incorporate them into meals and snacks to increase exposure. Serve them family-style on a large plate in the center of the table so they can choose what looks tempting, or offer small portions with plated meals to keep it breezy. Funnily enough, some kids eat better in groups, so consider serving a veggie tray at your next play date and watch what happens. 

Give them some autonomy

Offering kids choices is one of the best parenting hacks I’ve discovered. It empowers kids by giving them a sense of control over their options and boosts their confidence. When serving veggies, give your kids the opportunity to choose how they’re prepared, served, or plated. For instance, you could ask, “Would you like some ranch dressing or Thousand Island dressing with your carrots?” or “Would you prefer your cucumbers cut into circles or spears?”

Never resort to bribing or bargaining

While bribing your kids to eat veggies may seem like a good idea when you’re at your wit’s end, it’s actually not helpful (or beneficial) in the long run. When you use bribery or bargaining tactics, you’re sending the message that one food has more value than another. Plus, placing certain items on a pedestal isn’t the best approach to fostering a healthy relationship with food. Kids will be kids, and they’ll always want what they can’t have or what seems more special, which can turn into an unhealthy obsession. Ultimately, we want children to genuinely enjoy veggies, not just eat them as a means of getting dessert.

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