Just because a child is a vegetarian and vegan — even if it’s their own idea — that doesn’t guarantee that they won’t be finicky. The sad truth is that vegetarian and vegan kids can be as picky their omnivore counterparts.
It’s especially frustrating when their choices fall within a very narrow range, and they’re reluctant to try new foods and flavors. And it’s an even more trying situation when kids or teens who go vegetarian or vegan don’t like vegetables! That happens a lot more than you’d expect.
Here are 8 tips for tempting young picky eaters to broaden their horizons. Some of these tips can also apply to picky eaters of the adult variety, as well!
1 Give kids choices. This doesn’t mean handing them all the power and letting them dictate meals. But seriously, put yourself in their shoes. What if, day after day, some authority figure made all of your meals and compelled you to eat them, whether you liked them or not?
Giving kids choices — and I don’t mean between candy and ice cream, but between red and yellow tomatoes, for example — gives them a role in the process. I’ve seen moms with young kids at the natural foods store ask their child, “Do you think we should get some [fill in the blank: grapes, strawberries, bananas …]?” I don’t view this as being indulgent. It’s a teachable moment for the child, a way to familiarize them with fresh foods.
At meals, serve several simple side items and let your child — or childlike eater — choose. Baby carrots with a tasty dip or dressing, grape tomatoes, very thin slices of multi-colored bell peppers, diced baked tofu or baked tofu nuggets with barbecue sauce — these are just some possibilities.
2 Take kids to the natural foods store or farm market with you. These venues feature far fewer tempting items to be whined for, and even if some wheedling takes place, it’s likely to be for foods you’d want to take home. Kids can also make the connection with food and the farmers who work so hard to grow it.
3 Let picky eaters help with meal planning and preparation. Even the most intransigent of eaters can be swayed by giving them some say in meal planning. Show them colorful photos of tasty dishes in cookbooks or on websites and tell them that they can help plan, shop for, and prepare one meal a week. Their pride and sense of accomplishment will likely inspire better eating habits. If kids feel invested and empowered, they’e more likely to enjoy the outcome.
4 If you don’t want your kids to eat something, don’t keep it in the house! When my kids were younger and we visited other families, we’d sometimes witness silly arguments over food — for example, how many sugary cookies the child could have at 4:00 pm.
Guess what? If you don’t stock the cookies at home, there would be no argument. Save those kinds of foods as occasional treats outside the home. Or make the kind of low-sugar, nutrient treats you wouldn’t mind letting your child have at 4:00 pm or any other time.
5 Don’t bargain and don’t force: I can’t think of anything that can backfire more than bargaining for bites, as in, “if you have just three bites of this, you can have dessert.” That sends a strong message that the core part of the meal is a drag, or a mere portal to the promised land of sweets.
Kids need to get the message early on that a good meal is reward in itself. Worse yet is punishing a child for refusing a food. What a negative message that sends! Offering a wide variety of foods, simply prepared and pleasingly served, will always yield better results.
6 Be sneaky if you must: As a last resort, hide nutritious foods in tasty preparations. It’s easy to sneak steamed, pureed high-nutrient veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, winter squash, carrots, and greens) into pasta or pizza sauce.
Pureed silken tofu adds protein to soups, sauces, and smoothies. And it’s amazing how many vegetables can disappear into a soothing pureed soup. Sweet potatoes, squash, green veggies, and even onions become palatable in purees.
Smoothies are another way to concentrate vitamin-rich foods in a way that goes down easy. Combine fruits with nondairy milk and/or nondairy yogurt, or silken tofu. If you have a high-powered blender, you can even add high-nutrient raw veggies like carrots, squash, or sweet potato to smoothies. If you’re really lucky you can work your way up to adding greens to your family’s smoothies.
7 Recognize that “kid food” can be healthy when made with good ingredients. If you have young children, your shared meals might seem like “nursery food” for some time, but comfort food can be made healthy and tasty, too! Here are some ideas for kid-friendly meals that even adults can enjoy:
- When making pizza meals, make simpler versions for your child on whole-grain pita or English muffins. Layer with sauce and a sprinkling of nondairy cheese, and if your child doesn’t like veggies on the pizza itself, serve them on the side.
- Veggie burgers and sloppy joes often go over well with kids. Adults can opt for extra embellishments and spice things up to their own tastes.
- Pasta and noodles are great sanity-savers for parents. Kids often love noodles with peanut butter sauce, vegan macaroni and cheese, and pasta with classic marinara sauce. As their palates develop, add more and more veggies to the mix.
- Baked “fries” can be made with all kinds of vegetables, such as the jicama fries shown at the top. Some kids will eat anything they can dip into ketchup!
8 Be persistent, but not pushy. Produce is an intrinsic part of healthy, plant-based diets. Even kids who willingly go vegetarian or vegan can be picky about vegetables, in particular. Introduce less challenging veggies to picky eaters, like potatoes and sweet potatoes, carrots, and corn.
Continue to put vegetables on the table, lightly cooked, raw, and incorporated into other dishes. Don’t make a big deal of it. This is a case where familiarity breeds acceptance. In addition, many studies have shown that the “clean your plate” rule, over the long term, has the tendency to backfire.
Round out your fresh produce repertoire with plenty of fruits, especially for vegetarian and vegan kids who are balky about vegetables. See 9 Ways to Eat More Fruit All Year Round.
These tips are aimed for kids who already eat plant-based but who could use a boost, but what about kids who are transitioning to a vegan diet? Here are some tips on transitioning picky kids to a plant-based diet on Raising Vegan.