How do you get children to eat vegetables?

Bob Granleese

My kids won’t eat fresh vegetables, no matter how hard I try. How do I get them to eat their greens?
Annelise, Sevenoaks

Talk about asking the impossible, Annelise. Your guess is as good as mine, but at least you can take some comfort in the fact that you are not alone (and remember, anyone who says their little darling has cheerfully wolfed down cabbage since infancy is lying).

Cooks and restaurateurs are never the best people to talk to about tricky customers – they tend to get a bit sweary – but some are mothers and fathers, too, so I asked Feast’s own crew of exasperated parents how they cope. Like everyone who has ever tried to feed a recalcitrant child, Thomasina Miers resorts to underhand tactics. “I use every trick in the book,” she says. “The more children try vegetables, the more they’ll eat them … in the end.”

That includes extortion – “Bribe them with TV, sweets, anything” – as well as tough love: the Miers brood don’t get pudding unless they’ve eaten their greens (“Hardcore, maybe, but it works”). All three have now “slowly gone over to the green side”, and eat vegetables without protest. Well, almost. “It is a war of attrition, so get your tongs at the ready and wear those babies down.”

A golden rule is not to expect children to eat anything you wouldn’t put in your own mouth

Yotam Ottolenghi adopts similar covert strategies. “‘This’ll make you big and strong’ works. Sometimes,” the father of two says. Another ploy is to insist “that a particular dish ‘is only for grown-ups’. That’s like a red rag to a bull for my little boys.”

More practically, he’s learned that thinly sliced french beans tend to go unnoticed in stews and sauces; the same goes for the likes of diced carrot and courgette, so long as they’re not visible in the end result. “Best of all, they take no time to cook, so you can add them last minute.”

Another golden rule is not to expect children to eat anything you wouldn’t put in your own mouth. “Who wants mushy, over-boiled, insipid broccoli with no seasoning?” Miers asks. She steams green vegetables for just long enough to get them tender – “thereby preserving their nutrients, which, after all, is the point” – then tosses them in olive oil, lemon juice, a pinch of sea salt and a hint of pepper. “Better still, get the kids to dress and toss their greens themselves.” After that, it’s all about persevering (over and over and over again, in all likelihood).

Meera Sodha and her young daughter, meanwhile, are big fans of Veg Power’s Eat Them to Defeat Them initiative. “It’s supported by councils up and down the country, and nearly all the supermarkets, to get children eating more vegetables,” Sodha says. “The idea is, if it’s fun, kids will eat vegetables.” The website comes complete with downloadable bright, child-friendly posters that might, just might, encourage the ungrateful little so-and-sos to open their minds, and mouths, to everything from peas to squash.

Failing that, channel Rachel Roddy and try not to stress. It’s just a phase they’ll grow out of (fingers crossed). “Paint chips green and kid yourself they’re veg,” she laughs. That’s easier said than done if, like Roddy, your seven-year-old won’t eat cooked veg at all (so much for the fabled Italian diet, eh?). “I make him try everything, but he always does this retching thing. Except, randomly, with minestrone, which he’ll eat with lots of cheese.”

Roddy Jr is less picky about raw veg. “Cucumber, red pepper, peas in their pods, carrots, little gem hearts … most kids will eat some raw veg,” his mother sighs. “I often put some out and see what happens. At the very least, I or the tortoise will eat it.”

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