You know the picture: a frowning toddler in front of a full plate of Brussels sprouts, refusing to eat a single bite. But, not all children are fussy eaters – some toddlers spoon up their wholegrain oatmeal with gusto, and love nothing more than raw broccoli! For other kids, though, you have to try a lot harder to make veggies irresistible. ProVeg Netherlands director and mother of a five-year-old daughter, Veerle Vrindts, shares her five best tips on how to get children to eat more plant-based foods.
Seduce with colour
Children are very visual and will be more interested in foods that look colourful and interesting. Make fun shapes with pieces of fruit and vegetable, and choose brightly coloured combinations – your child’s plate will look a lot more exciting. Go all out with your ‘food art’: try a sun-shaped tangerine (a classic for my daughter) or add eyes to a head of steamed broccoli using olives and a dot of vegan mayonnaise. You can also get creative and turn a boring sandwich into a ‘snail’, using strips of cucumber and roasted peppers, or roll up the sandwich and cut it into ‘sushi’ rolls. Simple ideas can make all the difference in piquing a child’s curiosity and tempting them to take a bite.
If you’re feeling the inspiration, go all out and try a bento box. Bento is a Japanese packed-lunch tradition, with different foods in separate compartments. Traditionally, a Japanese bento box might contain animal products, but luckily there’s a lot of inspiration for plant-based bento boxes on Instagram: check out @bentoparty and @theindigokitchen, for great examples of rainbow lunches that look far more tasty than the average lunchbox.
Make vegetables fun (again)
Does your child have a hard time with most vegetables, or do they refuse to eat certain vegetables by themselves? Instead of forcing vegetables on your kid, try a different approach. For most kids, vegetables with a mild flavour go down more easily: try zucchini, potato, broccoli, or carrot. Cute-sized vegetables can also be a hit with toddlers: think cherry tomatoes and mini cucumbers. If the flavour is a bit too strong or unfamiliar, lightly steam the vegetables, or cut them into small pieces and thread them on a skewer, alternating with pieces of fruit. Or, combine a food that your child likes with a new vegetable that they’re not yet used to.
It might seem obvious, but keep asking your child what they like. The tastes of small children can change a lot, and what your toddler spits out today can become a favourite meal in a year’s time. If your child indicates that they don’t like a certain vegetable, try to find out whether it’s really the vegetable that’s the issue. Maybe they find the food too salty or too spicy, in which case, go easy on the herbs and spices. Or maybe they don’t like those spinach leaves raw, but they like them mixed into a stew or cooked in a wok with some plant-based cooking cream.
Is your toddler’s neophobia (fear of new things) still too much? Try out some ways to disguise those pesky vegetables as tempting treats. How about a beetroot brownie, a hearty zucchini cake or a cauliflower pizza base? Serving veggie foods from muffin moulds, or cooking vegetables in a puff pastry jacket can also work well for small children. Whenever I bring her a beet muffin in a bright pink cupcake mould, my toddler is full of smiles. Also, purple smoothies with blueberries, raspberries and a handful of kale makes her very happy.
Turn food and cooking into an adventure
If you want your child to have a good relationship with food, a playful approach is essential. Don’t use food to punish or reward their behaviour – rather, make food and eating an adventure. Explore different tastes, smells, and colours, and help your child to get acquainted with the wonderful world of food. Go shopping together and give your kids the shopping list so they can explore the supermarket. If they can’t read yet, spend some time with them making drawings of the food items before you head out.
Involve your child in the preparation of food. Of course, a toddler should not have a sharp knife in their hands, but a four-year-old can handle a vegetable under adult supervision. Have your toddler decorate a cake or mix the batter for vegan pancakes together with you. Yes, it will be a slower process, and you might end up with more cleaning up to do afterwards, but train your patience and view it as quality time: your child is only young once! You can also make things extra cosy at the table by playing a game: take turns guessing which ingredients are in the soup, or play ‘do you see what I see?’ with the colours on your plate. By setting a good example for your child, you’ll contribute to a lifetime of healthy eating pleasure.
Start a vegetable garden
Show your child where vegetables come from by starting a vegetable garden together. I started my daughter off with a square-metre garden on the balcony and some sprouts in the kitchen. In the meantime, our family owns a share in a covered allotment garden in a greenhouse, where we grow vegetables and herbs all year round. My partner helps my daughter plant and water the cuttings, and together we watch YouTube videos about organic vegetable gardens and check to see if there are any snails between the kale leaves before we start cooking. She enjoys it even more when she is the first one to taste her own harvested fruit and vegetables. Ever since we started our vegetable garden, she seems to be more aware of how much time it takes to grow food, and she doesn’t throw food away as easily.
Need more inspiration?
Thousands of parents share their best tips for tasty dishes for small and not-so-small eaters in the What Vegan Children Eat group on Facebook – join it to discover all kinds of ideas from other parents.