How to Get Kids to Eat Their Vegetables

A new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found kids will usually eat vegetables if they’re disguised in other foods.

If you grew up eating soggy spinach and limp broccoli, you at some point likely developed a strong distaste for vegetables. That’s the only reason I can imagine kids have such a hatred for this nutrient-dense food group that, when correctly prepared, can be amazingly delicious.

Regardless, parents and school lunchrooms have invented all kind of clever disguises to slip leafy greens into a kid-friendly palate.

You’ve no doubt seen – maybe even tried – the cookbooks, for instance, which show how to hide vegetables in other foods so your kids will eat them.

Manufacturers, likewise, concoct clandestine methods to slip vegetables into otherwise less-than-healthy foods, which kids then beg mom to put in the grocery cart.

My point, as this study shows, is that we’ll do nearly anything to get kids to eat their vegetables.

Researchers at Columbia University enrolled 68 elementary and middle school children. They developed three foods for these kids: zucchini chocolate chip bread, broccoli gingerbread spice cake, and chickpea chocolate chip cookies.

Here’s how it worked. Researchers presented students two foods. One listed the food’s vegetable; the other didn’t.

So for instance, one label might read “zucchini chocolate chip bread” and the other simply “gingerbread spice cake,” even though the gingerbread spice (unbeknownst to the kids, because it wasn’t on the label) also contained broccoli.

The kids loved the bread and cake regardless of whether it had the vegetable label. In other words, even though they knew that bread had zucchini, they enjoyed it just as much as the unlabeled bread.

The chickpea-labeled cookies, on the other hand, got huge thumbs down, although the unlabeled chickpea cookies proved a big hit.

Seems there’s a bit of bias against chickpeas.

Either that, or these kids had no idea what chickpeas were. (Although that didn’t stop them from devouring the unlabeled cookies.) While zucchini and broccoli were vegetable staples, only 19% of the kids had chickpeas within the past year.

These findings show that if you hide vegetables into dessert, the sweetness will overpower any vegetable-y taste and kids will probably eat it. The study also shows kids are less likely to choose unfamiliar foods.

It’s little wonder, then, that many adults also appear squeamish about trying a new healthy food like quinoa and kohlrabi. Take a look at my book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. How many of the more arcane foods have you tried? (Kimchi, anyone?)

I’m all for kids getting their vegetables any way they can, but I’m not sure if loading spinach into a chocolate chip cookie proves the healthiest way.

What if we just made vegetables taste better and even fun?

For one, serve vegetables fresh. There’s a world of difference between frozen packaged and fresh spinach, for instance, and kids pick up on it right away.

Two, add some good fats like butter or olive oil to the vegetables. They’ll taste much better, and the fat will help your kids absorb the fat-soluble nutrients like beta-carotene and vitamin D.

I’ll leave you with some vegetable ideas I practically guarantee your kids will love, no disguising required:

  • Fresh broccoli with butter
  • Spinach sautéed in coconut oil and garlic
  • Baked sweet potato fries
  • Brussels sprouts with nitrate-free bacon and olive oil
  • Sliced zucchini and squash fries
  • Spaghetti squash with pesto
  • Sliced zucchini and squash “breaded” with almond flour