Since the beginning of time, parents and child nutrition professionals alike have struggled to get children to eat their vegetables. All kinds of tactics have been employed in order for children to understand the importance of veggies in their diet. They see brightly-colored charts signifying which foods make up a healthy plate, they get stickers with carrots and broccoli dressed up like superheroes, and they hear “Eat your spinach, and you’ll be big and strong like Popeye!”

But at the end of the day, most kids still aren’t getting the proper amount of vegetables needed to maintain a healthy balance in their diets. We can’t force them to eat their veggies, but we can come up with creative ways to make vegetables more appealing. Here is a list of a few ways you can get your kids excited about this vital food group!

Dip ’em.

According to US News’ Wellness segment, children are more likely to try vegetables when they are in an interactive format. When you pair sliced vegetables with some kind of dipping sauce, such as peanut butter, hummus or a healthy salsa, kids are able to “play” with their food a little more than normal.

If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can even derive some of these dips from vegetables themselves. Students can then dip other vegetables, or some type of whole grain chips or pretzels, into the veggie-based dip. Dips can be made from cauliflower, beets, or even beans and peas. And there’s no need to buy these dips – you can make them on your own! This way, they are much fresher, and don’t contain added preservatives. Check out some homemade dip recipes here.

Make ’em fun.

Although it may take a little more work and planning to prepare them, kids really enjoy foods that are attractive or “fun” in appearance. Slice veggies like carrots, squash or cucumber into fun shapes, or assemble them in a way that looks like a vehicle, an animal or whatever you can imagine! Think hearts, stars, triangles or even Tetris-style puzzle piece veggies that fit together on the child’s plate. These “fun” veggies are no different than normal sliced veggies when it comes to taste, but a fun appearance may be the deciding factor when the child is choosing his or her lunch.

Pair ’em.

If veggies are paired with a food with which the child is already familiar, he or she may be more likely to try it. This way, you’re not asking a potentially picky eater to step outside of his or her comfort zone. Instead, you’re asking kids to try a food they know and love, with an added twist. Think about adding broccoli to their favorite whole grain macaroni and cheese, mixing cauliflower in with mashed potatoes, topping tacos with shredded cabbage or carrots, or sautéing onions and zucchini into pasta sauce.

Sneak ’em.

There are ways to encourage children to eat their vegetables besides serving the veggies just the way they are. You can “sneak” these vegetables into foods! Think adding spinach or kale to smoothies, adding butternut squash puree to mac n’ cheese, mincing up veggies to add to meatballs, using zucchini instead of pasta for lasagna – the opportunities are endless! While you should never lead your students astray and not tell them what their food contains, if they cannot physically see the veggies in their food (and arguably can’t tell a difference in taste, either), they’ll be less likely to reject the food.  To see more of these “food sneak” recipes, click here.

There are also pre-packaged items that many food vendors offer which sneak vegetables into the products for you! Disguised by a sweet or fruity taste, there are many smoothies, juices and drinks on the market that contain vegetables like beets, greens, cauliflower and even sweet potato.

Test ’em.

When students feel involved in the process for choosing what to serve in their school cafeteria, they’re more likely to want to participate! A great way to get students involved and to increase awareness about a certain food item is to do a taste test. This activity works especially well for farm-to-school foods – especially veggies – and new or exotic foods to the program. Set out the taste test item you wish to introduce to your child nutrition program in a way that works best for you – at a table at the beginning or end of the serving line, on a tray which you deliver to the students at their seats, in the classroom, etc.

Really play up the taste test! When students see that their friends have tried the food, they’ll be more open-minded to trying it as well. Plus, kids love free stuff! You can even reward them with an “I tried it!” sticker to remind them of the fun activity they got to complete that day. Have the students vote on the food (“I would try it again”, “It’s not for me” – think positive phrasing!) with stickers or tally marks on a chart, or in a clear ballot box (so other students can see how many others have participated!). This way, you’re getting your students exposed to vegetables, and also using your collected data (that the students collected for you!) to determine whether that particular veggie would be well-received in your program.

Market ’em.

Marketing your food items – whether you’re posting quality photos of your food items on social media, displaying photos and nutritional content of your dishes on a digital menu, or putting up veggie-centered posters around your cafeteria – helps children become more aware of the vegetables that you’re serving. As we move further into the future, parents and students alike are becoming more health-conscious and want to know that the food they’re eating (or feeding their children) is made up of the healthiest ingredients. Marketing these veggies – and the new and exciting ways you’re serving them! – to your students really helps to generate a buzz about your program, and shows your students that you are interested in serving them both nutritious and delicious dishes.

If you’re looking for some free online tools that will help you to visually market your program or the foods you are serving, think Canva (a graphic design tool), Pixlr (a photo editor), and even Meme Generator (a platform for creating your own silly photos, or memes).

What do YOU do?

Have you come up with ways to effectively get your kids excited about eating vegetables? What strategies do you use to get your students to eat more veggies? Leave your suggestions in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you, and share your ideas with our readers!