For even the best parents, mealtime with children can easily become one of the most frustrating and disheartening times of the day.
Maybe you’re raising a little one who runs away from anything green. Or perhaps your child hates mixed flavors or textures and cries when their food “touches.”
No matter what your situation may be, we can all agree on one thing:
We want our children to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole, plant-based foods.
But it’s not impossible. In fact, healthy eating can be fun (and tasty) for both the child and the parent.
It just requires the right approach.
21 Ways to Get Your Kids to Crave Plant-Based Foods
I’ve failed many times when attempting to feed my kids a healthy meal, but through both my own experiences and what I’ve learned while working with other families, I’ve developed a number of tips on how to get your kids to love vegan food.
Tips that actually work.
1. Talk to your kids about the ‘why’.
The number one thing you can do is talk about why you love plant-based foods.
Inspiring your kids with the ‘why’ will help them feel more adventurous. Help them see that they have power, and that their choices matter for themselves and the environment.
Children are naturally empathetic. Tap into that empathy and they may be more motivated to do their part to help the planet and animals.
2. Teach them how to wash, cut, mix, and participate.
Kids love learning by doing, especially when you make it fun.
Get them involved in the kitchen not by looking at it as a chore, but as a training or internship. Just like that high school intern you hired at work, you’ll be amazed at how seriously they take it.
Here are a few ideas of how kids can join in:
- Washing and prepping produce
- Reading and following the recipe (if they’re old enough to read)
- Chopping soft vegetables with a dull knife
- Stirring and mixing
- Holding the measuring cups
- Adding ingredients into the mixing bowl or pan
- Pushing the buttons on the food processor or blender
- Taste testing (everyone’s favorite!)
When you serve it up, make a big deal of their contributions when you get to the table. They will be more likely to eat what they had a hand in making.
3. Schedule a special cooking weekend.
Cooking with your kids can be difficult when time and tempers are short, so plan a special food-centered weekend when you have time to shop, cook, and eat all together. Having them take part in the full process will help your kids get an idea of where their food comes from, and what is involved in meal planning as well as the prep.
When you’re able, hit the farmer’s market — it’s both fun and different, and helps with the understanding of seasonality.
For little kids, break up the activities of shopping and cooking, shopping on Saturday and cooking on Sunday. And always make sure this weekend feels special and fun.
Start with just one recipe, and with a little time and patience, your children will really be able to help out.
4. Eat lots of fruit.
Kids love sweet, juicy, fresh foods, and the natural sugars in fruit come with loads of fiber and nutrients.
Fruit can be eaten on its own, in a salad, on top of pancakes, or blended in a smoothie. There are endless ways to introduce more fruit into your kids’ diets if you get creative.
5. Make smoothies a staple in your house.
One of the most kid friendly ways to get a quick boost of nutrient dense fruits is through a smoothie.
Here are my tips for making them extra popular for your little one:
- When choosing bananas, make sure to select the sweet, brown spotty ones. They taste better and they’re better for you.
- Start with frozen fruit. It’s quick and easy.
- Pitted dates or date paste provide an easy way to add sweetness, fiber, potassium and magnesium.
- Make the smoothies into popsicles by freezing them.
Smoothies help kids acquire a taste for plant-based foods and assist in the break up with added sugars.
6. Let them help with shopping.
Get your kids involved in the shopping so they can select their own fruits and vegetables. Tell them what’s in season, and visit pick-your-own farms or farmer’s markets to help them connect their diet to nature.
If they choose something you’re not familiar with, use that as an opportunity to learn about cooking the ingredient together.
7. Start with mild tasting greens.
Leafy greens are some of the healthiest foods on the planet, but they can be a tough sell for kids. For that reason, I start families with mild tasting greens like baby spinach, and have them work their way up to kale and collards.
8. Add fruit to your salads.
Once they used to the idea of raw greens, salads are always fun and easy to prep with your kids.
Start them with a simple green salad with lots of berries and nuts, or add marinated tofu and pumpkin seeds for an extra boost. Keep dressings simple and on the side so kids can taste each salad ingredient individually if they prefer it that way.
9. If they still won’t eat salad, try this fun (and healthy) green smoothie recipe.
Can’t get your kid to touch a salad? I bet they’ll love the flavors and vibrant color in my Tropical Green Smoothie. Here’s the recipe:
Start with a ripe banana and ice, add some frozen mango, coconut water, and lots of baby spinach. Blend on high and serve. So simple, healthy and yummy.
10. Teach them how to bake (with these two easy recipes).
Do your kids like to bake? Mine do, especially when the smell fills our kitchen.
Baking also provides an opportunity to explain healthy swaps like dates instead of sugar. Dates are a great way to boost the antioxidants, fiber and nutrition in their snacks, and to introduce them to healthy new ingredients.
My no-fail vegan egg replacer for baking is 3-tbsp aquafaba (chick pea water) and 1-tsbp ground flax. Mix and let it gel for 10 minutes before using.
(Here are lots more healthy, vegan baking substitutions.)
11. Transition with mock-meats.
If your kids aren’t ready to give up real meat burgers or chicken-tenders, try transition foods first.
There are lots of ready-made vegan burgers and sausages that may taste a lot like meat for your cautious kids. And you know what? That’s perfectly alright.
These foods are great when transitioning to a more whole food plant-based diet.
12. Build your own veggie burgers.
Once your kids start to love pre-made veggie burgers, introduce the homemade varieties.
I was so happy the other day when my daughter told me that these sweet potato and black bean burgers are her favorite burgers. She loved the flavors, textures, and colors.
Boost your omega-3, protein, and fiber intake by adding chia seeds to your veggie burger recipes. They even help give your burgers great texture!
13. Embrace the foods they love.
Almost every kid loves at least one vegan food. Maybe it’s tofu, nuts, raw carrots, apples, or bananas.
Start with what they love and build on it.
If your kids love sweet fruits — fabulous! Help them to taste the rainbow of the gorgeous fruits available.
If your kid is more of a crunchy veggie kinda guy, start with carrots and then add bell peppers, cucumber, or raw sweet potato.
14. Cook with peanut butter (and other flavors they’re already familiar with).
Unless there’s an allergy situation, almost every kid is already familiar with the taste of peanut butter. Use this familiar flavor when introducing other foods.
Try this African peanut butter stew (get them to add the PB to the pot), for example, a delicious satay sauce, or try simply adding nuts to your favorite stir-fry.
15. Keep things playful, not complicated.
Be playful. Come up with ways to make fruits, vegetables, and other foods more fun:
- Dip fruits or veggies in creative sauces
- Spiralize vegetables into cool shapes
- Grill them on the BBQ
- Let them pick out a new whole food each week at the grocery store to try at home
None of those tips are complicated, or require much work on your part. Being playful doesn’t mean more for you to do.
16. Have them articulate their likes and dislikes.
Language is very important when it comes to kids and food.
Re-frame how your kids talk about their food. Instead of them saying they don’t like a food, or that they find a food disgusting, ask them to say they are not used to that food yet.
Encourage them to discuss what is new or difficult for them: is it the flavor, is it the texture, is it too sweet or too spicy or too mushy or too crunchy?
And ask them how they would make it tastier. Take their ideas seriously, and let them help out in preparing that modified meal the next time you serve it.
17. Call your kid a ‘foodie.’
Always brag about your kids to others, explaining that they are little foodies, and that you are so proud of the sophisticated foods they will try. Help your children to build an identity around being knowledgeable around food and in control of their food choices.
Reinforcing that they are ‘picky’ is not going to give them the confidence to branch out.
18. Try the ‘Tiny Tastes’ technique.
For kids trying a new food they are not sure of, try the tiny tastes technique, which research has shown can help kids get over their fear of new foods.
Here’s how it works: Introduce new foods in tiny — and I mean tiny — portions. Even as small as a grain of rice.
The tiny portion feels less intimating, and kids will quickly expand their dietary repertoire.
Try out tiny tastes by choosing a new or moderately disliked vegetable to introduce to your child. Look at the vegetable together, whole and raw if possible. Talk about how it grows, what it smells like, what it feels like and its color.
When it’s meal time, place a tiny sliver of the vegetable on a plate by itself, with no dips or sauces. When you child eats the food, they get a reward (like a sticker) and lots of verbal praise. Over time, make the tiny sliver of veggie a bit bigger, until your son or daughter is having a full slice.
19. Give rewards for trying new foods.
Make a reward chart, not for when your child eats their dinner, but when they try new foods or retry foods they didn’t like in the past. Once they hit a certain number of new foods, make the reward food-related, like a trip to a ‘pick your own’ farm.
20. Marinate with umami flavors like soy sauce.
If you are looking to enhance the flavor of savory dishes for your kids, try out my secret weapon, the umami-boosting power of soy sauce, tamari (gluten free), Bragg’s aminos (gluten free), or coconut aminos (gluten and soy free).
These salty and yummy sauces are excellent as a marinade for your tofu or for sautéing greens.
Try this simple baked sriracha and soy sauce tofu to delight kids looking for a meaty texture and lightly spicy flavor. If it’s too hot for your family, try adding in a little maple syrup to sweeten the deal.
21. Use coconut milk for mild curries.
Your kids can grow to love curry and benefit from the anti-inflammatory properties of spices like ginger and turmeric, but remember to keep it mild to start. Canned coconut milk will make for a delicious curry base, but if you want to keep it lighter, try drinkable coconut milk. Lower in fat and still delicious.
The Incredible Gift of Veggie-Loving Children
I wish every child automatically loved healthy, vegan foods, but unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Each child is different and reacts to foods in their own unique ways.
But as parents, we have this opportunity to teach and shape the way they view and interact with food. Teaching your kids to love plant-based foods isn’t just about introducing them to veganism, it’s about kindling a love affair with a healthy, nutritious diet.
At a young age they’ll develop an identity around whole foods, gain skills in the kitchen, and understand how food affects their health.
And who knows, once they get a little older, maybe they’ll even start cooking for you.
Now wouldn’t that be an incredible gift?