How to get kids to eat their greens

Dinner time tantrums are a thing of the past in my house, says our columnist.

Spread of dinner time dishes with vegetables, a child and parent's hands

Thinking back to when I was growing up, every single meal I ate was cooked by my mum, aunt or nan – always fresh, home-cooked meals packed with meat, fish and lots of greens. We did, however, eat an awful lot of offal! Perhaps two, three times a week – tripe, tongue, liver, kidneys and even chicken feet.

I remember very distinctly the day our teacher picked us all out one by one and asked us to come up and tell everyone what we had for dinner and why we enjoyed it. Without hesitation, I piped up, with a smile on my face: ‘I had a cow’s tongue curry.’ The gasps and sounds of retching made me realise, for the first time, that what I ate at home wasn’t necessarily everyone else’s reality.

My dad was – and still is – frugal. He didn’t like waste and he didn’t like us eating ‘rubbish’, as he called it, even though I have caught him eating a sneaky Drifter bar in the car before he comes in. I realise now that I’ve become my dad. So often I’ve eaten a bar of chocolate to keep me going but consciously eaten it in the car away from the kids. I think there’s a direct link to children copying their parent’s behaviour. Growing up, we never had convenience food in the house, so we never questioned it.

When I had my own children, they ate what I cooked, which was always fresh home-cooked meals, raw veg and offal. They ate what I had in the cupboards too: chocolates, biscuits cakes and crisps. Although mostly cooperative, occasionally we have had a few protests.

We tried the whole ‘you must finish your food’ line but that just made them weary and upset. So, we learnt that if we told them there was no snack after and they could eat what they want but they may still be hungry, it was enough to push them to eat what was there. Sometimes it worked, other times they went to bed hungry.

I used to feel awful when they were hungry, but what I’ve learnt is that we’re in a first-world country with first-world problems – not to mention first-world guilt. Kids copy their parents: if I eat greens and they see that it hasn’t killed me, chances are they will give it a go too. As parents, we are so good at comparing. We have had kids come for dinner and turn their noses up at the veg on the table. It instantly makes me proud of my own.

As a family we aim to have something green in every meal. Whether it’s chopped cucumber, piles of spinach or peas, it’s just become a habit. As the children have got older, we’ve gone from some tantrums to pretty much none. Taking control of our eating habits has meant we can take control of our lives!

Pasta in tomato sauce and topped with rocket, in a bowl
Nadiya's 3 top tips:

1. Don’t force them to eat everything on the plate. That’s quite scary if they’re already weary. I try a few words of encouragement and then let them make a choice. Imagine how great they’ll feel if they finish it – and because they wanted to!

2. Join them for dinner. If I’m home, I’ll have dinner with the children – talking about their day is a good distraction. Sometimes they eat without even realising how many greens they’ve had, especially if a little one is particularly fussy.

3. If they’re unsure about a vegetable, get them involved. Make them touch it, feel it, smell it and even taste it. Get them involved in the cooking, that way they will feel less scared when they see something new on their plate.

Read more articles by Nadiya...

How I eat on a budget
Why I asked my family to be vegan
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