"Don't forget to eat your vegetables," has been a go-to parenting phrase for decades, as every parent wants to help their child grow strong and healthy, and a diet full of whole foods is a great way to achieve that. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that children aged two and older should be consuming a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein, and healthy oils.

But a balanced diet doesn’t have to wait until your little one turns two. In fact, getting in the habit of eating fruits and vegetables should start as soon as you begin introducing solid foods to your little one, usually around six months. New research has found that starting healthy eating habits early in life leads to enjoying fruits and vegetables later on.

Actually getting your kids to fight over who gets the last floret of broccoli can be a challenge, however, as nutrient-dense veggies such as broccoli, spinach or Brussel sprouts aren't as delectable to a child's palette as french fries, sweets or packaged snacks are. Here's how to get your children to eat more vegetables– and actually enjoy it.

The Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables for Young Kids

During infant stages and early childhood, adequate nutrition is key to their growth, health, and development. If nutrition is poor, it can increase the risk of illness and lead to childhood obesity. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, almost 1 in 3 children in America are overweight or obese.

According to the World Health Organization, the recommendations for optimal infant feeding include:

  • Exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months (if this is possible or practical)
  • Nutritionally adequate and safe complementary feeding starting from the age of 6 months with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond

Complementary feeding helps close the gap of any nutrients and calories the child needs that they aren’t getting enough of from breastmilk (although it still provides ½ of an infant's energy needs up to the age of 1). Without complementary foods starting at 6 months, or they are given inappropriately, the child's growth could be affected.

These recommendations may need to be adjusted for the needs of the child, or if the parent is unable to nurse, and check with your pediatrician in the case of a preterm or low-birth-weight infant or one suffering from dehydration.

Recent Studies Shed Light Into Healthy Diets for Kids

A 2021 study found that when health care workers promoted infant healthy feeding practices to pregnant women, their children consumed fewer fats and carbs at 3 years old and had lower body fat levels at the age of 6.

“The first year after birth is a critical window for the establishment of habits that will influence health patterns throughout one’s lifetime,” commented Caroline N. Sangalli, the first author. “The message worldwide is that to avoid obesity later in life you cannot start too early to help mothers feed their children well. And this study is proof of principle that it is possible to change a mother’s behavior.”

All the families in the study were taught how to introduce complementary foods and educated about foods that should not be given to children under the age of 2, including cookies, snacks, soft drinks, and processed sweets. The interviewers monitored the growth of the children and foods that were offered to them, including amounts and preparation methods. These follow-ups occurred at ages 6 months, 12 months, 3 years, and 6 years.

“Most surprising was that the mothers in our randomized trial offered ultra-processed foods, that are high in sugar and fat, as early as 6 months of age,” said Marcia Vitolo, co-senior author. “This behavior can be explained by cultural influences and strong marketing of processed baby foods which continues globally.”

How to Get Your Kids to Eat Healthy

If you’re a parent of young kids, you know that getting youngsters to love healthy options can be easier said than done. Some children may start out with picky eating tendencies, and in that case, the solution isn’t to force them to eat certain foods. In fact, research shows that children can wind up developing a dislike for what they feel pressured to eat since the food becomes associated with conflict. Experts tell parents not to make meals a battleground or place where wills are tested.

10 Tips to Improve Your Child’s Nutrition and Help Picky Eaters

  • Respect your child's appetite: If your kiddo is telling you they aren’t hungry, avoid making them sit in front of food until they finish the last bite. Avoid asking them to finish certain parts of the meal. This could wind up making the child feel anxious at meals.
  • Create a routine: Be consistent with when you serve your children meals and snacks.
  • Be patient: When introducing new foods, it can take several tries for your child to accept the texture, smell, or taste. Repeated exposure, alongside their favorite foods, can help your child become more familiar with it, and willing to try it.
  • Don’t make them a separate meal: When you prepare different foods for your child, if they turn down the original meal, it can result in them becoming an even more picky eater.
  • Make food fun: Serve up dips or sauces with fruits and veggies. Making fun shapes with food (a smiley face or heart on the plate) can also excite some children to try it out.
  • Let your child help with cooking or serving: Involve your child in the buying or cooking or plating of food could encourage them to try new foods. This could be as simple as helping wash the vegetables or take the stems off the fruits.
  • Be an example: When your child sees you enjoying certain foods, such as spinach or broccoli, they are more likely to try those as well. This works. Eat your broccoli!
  • Be creative: Vegetables don’t have to be served up alone. Adding fruits and vegetables to meals can be easy – such as topping their cereal with berries, or adding chopped veggies to the spaghetti sauce.
  • Remove distractions: Try to keep the focus on the food and not the environment or a screen or game. Try removing any toys or gadgets from the table or their tray, and turn off the television, until after dinner.
  • Don’t reward "no veggies" with dessert: This gives the impression that dessert is the best food and may leave them skipping the nutritious choices for the sweets. Instead, stick with a routine and offer desserts a few times per week, or offer “healthier” options such as fruit salad or watermelon.

If you’re looking for more ways to incorporate a healthy, plant-based diet into your day-to-day life, check out our Health and Nutrition articles.