Hidden veggies for toddlers – is this ok or am I being dishonest?

We all know vegetables are nutritious foods. They contain so many vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that protect our little ones from becoming unwell and yet they are probably the most rejected food by toddlers!

So many of us hide veggies in our children’s food, is this OK or are we just being dishonest…

Here’s what you need to know…

Vegetables can be divided into 2 types 

I like to think of vegetables in two categories:

  • Sweet vegetables such as butternut squash, carrots, parsnips, peas, swede, sweetcorn, and sweet potato.
  • Bitter veggies such as asparagus, aubergine, avocado, broccoli, cauliflower, courgette, cucumber, green beans, potato, and spinach

And it probably comes as no surprise that the sweet ones they might eat, and it’s the bitter ones you end up hiding in sauces, muffins, smoothies…. 

toddler boy sat in highchair crying with a bowl of cauliflower
toddler boy sat in highchair crying with a bowl of cauliflower

Why are certain vegetables preferred?

Children have mature sweet taste buds and quite immature bitter ones. Therefore they are far more likely to like sweeter veggies like peas and sweetcorn, over bitter ones like Brussels sprouts or kale.

Because bitter flavours aren’t an instant hit, repeatedly offering them helps children learn to like them, and this can take a lot of time.

Children actually experience flavour differently from adults and so what might be perfectly acceptable to us may result in disgust to a child. They are not being naughty by refusing to eat broccoli,  it might literally make them want to wretch! 

How do you get your toddler to eat vegetables? 

This is the million dollar question! If only I had a magic wand.

I do have lots of advice for you but the key thing you need to know is that children are learning and learning to like vegetables takes time. 

What tastes acceptable to you or I can be perceived totally differently to a child as their sensory systems develop. 

So be patient, don’t expect miracles and give it time… it might take years rather than weeks!

Before I get started on my advice, let’s address whether you should hide vegetables in your children’s food, or not.

Is it ok to hide vegetables?

We’ve all done this. We know how important it is for our little ones to get all the wonderful goodness from vegetables and because they won’t eat them outright we sneak them into other foods.

But here’s the thing….

This is not the right thing to do when done in secret. Tricking them doesn’t really get us anywhere as it just masks the problem rather than overcoming it.

Without exposure to those vegetables, your little one doesn’t stand a chance of being able to learn to like it as they are not actively involved in the process. 

Eating is not a two-step process, children don’t just sit down and eat. Eating is something they have to learn throughout their childhood years and learning happens with their senses.

Children need to be exposed to the food they don’t like on a regular basis. They need to be able to see it, smell it, sometimes hear it, touch it, and eventually taste it before they can like it.

So what’s best? I suggest combining hidden vegetables so you know they are getting some goodness  alongside ‘visible’ vegetables they can explore.

Don’t trick them though, be honest about the foods you are hiding. Children don’t like nasty surprises and if they find a lump of mushroom in their pasta sauce that hasn’t blended down properly you could face losing pasta sauce as an accepted food. 

But worse than that, finding out that mummy has been secretly hiding foods they don’t like can damage the trusting relationship between the two of you, making them suspicious of any new foods you introduce to them and creating a whole new level of stress.

young toddler girl squashing a carrot in her hand
young toddler girl squashing a carrot in her hand

The best veggies to hide in meals

Spinach can be incorporated into ‘green smoothies’ which in turn can be frozen into ice lollies.

Avocado instead of banana works well in smoothies too.

Courgette is also one of the easiest veg to hide and incorporate in meals. You can grate it and include it in mac n cheese, chicken curry, spaghetti meatballs, and even your cakes and bakes.

Cauliflower and broccoli can easily be included in pasta dishes, soups and currys.

Butternut squash is lovely mashed and stirred through risotto.

Sweet potatoes and carrots are a brilliant base for muffins and tray bakes.

You can throw just about anything into a tomato based pasta sauce, celery, onion, peppers, courgette, carrot all work well. Use this sauce in lasagne, spaghetti bolognese and even as your tomato sauce for homemade pizza.

Stir pureed cooked cauliflower through mashed potato

Peas pureed go well in pancake batter.

Chickpeas are amazing mashed up and added to cookies

You must try my chocolate beetroot cakes and my avocado black bean brownies or my spinach & banana monster muffins.

How to get toddlers to eat vegetables

Ok, here’s my long term strategies to help your children eat more veg.

1. Set the example

Children need to see you eating those foods too. Toddlers instinctively copy what their parents and other children do and if they don’t see you eating those veggies they’ll learn not to eat them either. Sharing a meal together is vital for this to work.

The younger you can do this the better as research has shown that early experiences increase the chances of eating healthy later in life (1).

toddler boy playing in a veg plot in a garden
toddler boy playing in a veg plot in a garden

2. Growing vegetables together

We know that exposing children to foods they don’t like away from the dinner table can be really helpful for them and a brilliant way to do this is by growing vegetables at home (2)

To start your own veggie garden doesn’t require a big space. A small planter box or herb pots in a sunny window of your home can increase interest in these foods.

Some local gardens all across the UK have a veggie garden section. Visiting the park and looking and smelling veggies and herbs can be an easy way to expose your children to new veggies. 

3. Shopping for vegetables

Similarly food shopping is a low pressure way for your children to learn about veggies as there is no expectation to eat them. 

Spend some time in the fruit and vegetable section, encourage them to touch and pick veggies to bring home and cook and explain what they are and what they taste like.

4. Read books about veg

Have you read your toddler a story about veggies? Research has shown that reading books and stories about veggies can increase vegetable intake in children (3)

Afterwards, look for the same veg in the supermarket and let them choose one to take home.

Need book recommendations? Check out my blog here all about books about food.

5. Helping prepare veggies for dinner

Encourage your toddler to help you in the kitchen. Most toddlers will be really enthusiastic with the opportunity.

Even young children can get involved with washing vegetables, tearing lettuce leaves, stirring things around and even chopping with a children’s safety knife or butter knife.

fish balls and vegetables in a pretty display
fish balls and vegetables in a pretty display

6. Make vegetables look appealing

Children make decisions about whether to eat or not based on what food looks like. 

They are in a developmental phase called ‘magical thinking’ so anything that appeals to their imagination stands a better chance of being eaten.

Think about arranging food on their plate in a fun way or making cauliflower sheep and broccoli trees.

7. Make them taste and smell nice

Sounds like an odd thing to say but when we are faced with healthy eating messages here, there and everywhere we are more likely to steam vegetables or serve them without any additional flavour.

However, food doesn’t become nutrition until it’s been eaten and so a little bit of butter, mayonnaise, soy sauce or even salt sprinkled on the broccoli can make it more appealing.

8. Buy seasonal veg

When you are preparing your family’s meals, choose veggies that are in season, they’ll be packed full of flavour and children are much more likely to respond positively to flavoursome foods.

9. Serve family-style

Serve food in large bowls in the centre of the table so that your child can help themselves to the portion they want to eat. 

This is so important for building trust around food and for the sensory experience they’ll get from seeing and smelling foods they don’t like from across the table.

It’s important to remember though that none of these tips are quick wins. They’re long term strategies.

10. Practice Positive Food Parenting

Fussy eating is incredibly frustrating for us parents but I urge you to keep calm and don’t resort to bribes, rewards, incentives or distractions to try to get your child to eat. 

Yes, they’ll work today and maybe even next week but in a year’s time chances are their picky eating will be worse and there will be even fewer foods they’ll eat.

If your toddler tends to ignore their veggies just keep offering them. 

How you ‘parent’ around food can make all the difference. Teaching positive food parenting fussy eaters is my specialist area and I have a ton of information to help you. You can start to learn more about how to get a child to eat when they refuse here.

sweet potato boats
sweet potato boats

45 recipes with hidden veggies (and visible veg too)

Ok, so if you need some inspiration on where to start, here are 45 recipes that incorporate veggies in a way that are more likely to be accepted!

Meals

  1. My butternut squash and carrot soup is a recipe that can feed the whole family. Perfect for autumn and winter.

  2. Frittatas are an excellent way of including veggies. They can serve as breakfast, lunch or dinner and you can batch cook them. Have a look at this recipe by Karen Moreno-Bryce, who is a vegan dietitian.

  3. These are my favourite vegan burgers as they are packed with different veggies and are easy to prepare.

  4. Make your child fall in love with veggies with this colourful quinoa salad. This is a recipe by children’s cookery expert Annabel Karmel and will help you reach your family’s 5-a-day target.

  5. You can make a mac n’ cheese really nutritious if you add veggies to it. This mac and cheese with veggies recipe by nutritionist Stacey is a good comfort food option.

  6. Savoury muffins are a nice breakfast option and are perfect to pop into lunch boxes for young and older children. Give these sweet potato, spinach and feta muffins a go!

  7. A quick and easy recipe for toddlers is this creamy avocado and spinach pasta by cookbook author Ciara Attwell. This meal is rich in minerals like iron and vitamins like A, C, and some B vitamins as well.

  8. If you are trying to get your toddler into eating more veggies, try this pizza pasta salad for a quick and nutritious meal. It only takes 15 minutes!

  9. If your children enjoy having pizza, try to get them involved by making their own. This DIY Pitta Bread Pizza by cookbook Author, Ciara Attwell is an excellent way for your children to experiment with new foods.

  10. Forget about the regular mash potato and try to change things up with this carrot and sweet potato mash.

  11. Beans and pulses are an excellent source of plant protein and fibre. They pair well with veggies in meals. Try these lovely lentils for a vegan lunch.

  12. Trying to cook a quick meal for your toddler? Look no further. This microwave courgette and pea risotto from bbc goodfood is the perfect base to have with chicken or prawns. 

  13. This chicken taco salad is four of your toddler’s five-a-day and is perfect if you want to get some variety into your child’s lunchbox. 

  14. Soups make a perfect family lunch and are perfect for your toddler to get dipping or mixing with some toast. Try this roasted red pepper and tomato soup with ricotta for a comfort food dish.

  15. If you like meal prepping, you can prepare the chicken base ahead for this creamy chicken and sweetcorn soup by bbc goodfood. This soup can be put together in 20 minutes by defrosting and adding some extra ingredients.

  16. Likewise, these mini shepherd’s pies, by food writer Caroline Hire, are handy for getting ahead on week’s meals and are packed with celery, carrots, courgette and peppers.

  17. These super easy crispy cauliflower cheese patties are ideal for baby-led weaning as they are easy to hold. You can try to batch cook and freeze some for a midweek lunch.

  18. Is your child a fan of chicken nuggets but you are worried about how nutritious they are? Try these sweet potato, chicken and couscous nuggets for nuggets rich in vitamins and fibre.

  19. You can get your toddler involved in making their own lunch with this pitta pizza. You just need to chop the veggie toppings beforehand and let your toddler pick which veggies they want.

  20. Have you tried beetroot hummus before? I find this recipe an excellent way to expose toddlers to beetroot if they don’t like the way it looks whole or chopped. You can add this hummus into a sandwich, wrap or cracker.

  21. You can also please the whole family with these sweet potato boats. This is a great dish for any leftovers and allows you to add different veggies as filings.

  22. Sweetcorn and spinach go well together and make these fritters an excellent finger food. These fritters are rich in vitamin C and iron.

  23. If your family is a fan of curries but you don’t really know how to introduce your toddler to Indian food, try this mild but delicious split pea and spinach dhal.

  24. An easy way of introducing your toddler to greens is by combining these easy spinach pancakes along with regular pancakes.

  25. These turkey and carrot roll-ups are an easy and playful lunch to serve with hummus or guacamole. They are rich in vitamin A and protein.

  26. And if your child is a fan of wraps, you won’t want to miss this really easy to make kale, spinach and apple quesadilla. This is an excellent lunch option packed with vitamins and minerals.

  27. If you want to make breakfast time more exciting for your toddler, try these pumpkin waffle dippers. They are full of fibre and protein.

  28. Another excellent and quick breakfast option are these broccoli egg cups. You only need 4 ingredients to make these protein rich savoury cups.

  29. If you are looking for a way to increase your toddler’s broccoli consumption, try these cheesy broccoli quinoa bites.

  30. Finally, this Mediterranean inspired pasta by Annabel Karmel is a quick and easy recipe for when life gets really busy.

spinach muffins
spinach muffins

Snacks

  1. These baked cauliflower tots by Kidspot Kitchen make up for a great veggie based finger food snack.

  2. If you are after a healthy, nutty dip, try this peanut hummus with fruit and veggie sticks. This can be a nice snack or a midweek lunch when you are short on time.

  3. And if your toddler enjoys dipping, you can also give this red pepper hummus with crispbread snaps a go.

  4. Looking for a veggie-powered pudding or snack? Look no further! These pumpkin chocolate chip muffins by nutritionist Stacey make a lovely snack.

  5. If you fancy getting your children involved in snack prepping, you can try these healthy carrot cookies.

  6. For when Halloween is around the corner or for when you want to have a very playful snack time, try this ghoulish guacamole. This recipe is part of my Healthy Halloween Party Food blog.

  7. These blueberry avocado muffins are full or fruit, healthy fats, fibre and vitamins. Perfect for small toddler hands.

  8. Another really easy way of including veggies during snack time is by using them to decorate rice cakes. You can get really creative here.

  9. If your child is a fan of the natural world, grab a cucumber, celery, carrots and peas and create veggie bugs.

  10. You can also try creating ladybugs with some crackers, hummus or cream cheese and some tomatoes.

  11. Spinach is rich in iron and an excellent veggie to mix into muffins. Try baking these banana spinach muffins which allow you to get your child involved in preparing the mix.

  12. Homemade granola bars are super easy to make and they are usually healthier than the store-bought ones. Give these pumpkin granola bars a go!

  13. Try doing a simple green smoothie but with a silly face! Decorate the top of the smoothie with fruits and grains for extra fun and nutrition.

  14. These pumpkin chocolate donuts are an excellent option to enjoy in autumn!

  15. Finally, this quick avocado and strawberry smoothie can be the perfect on-the-go snack for when days get busy.

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Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist
Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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meet Sarah

I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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