Smiling parents holding young children at beach

Making veggies appetizing for finicky kids

July 26, 2022 | Valerie Elwell
Egg and veggie breakfast wrap

We'd all like to put healthy vegetables on a plate and hear our kids say, "Thanks, I've been craving this!"

Unfortunately, mealtimes can feel like a battleground when you're trying to feed your children nutritious food. It doesn't have to be that way.

Recent research shows that getting kids to eat their veggies comes down to repetition. The more often they are exposed to familiar and unfamiliar foods and vegetables, the better the chances they will eat them.

Exposure can mean growing vegetables in your garden, reading about them, choosing them when grocery shopping, involving little ones in food preparations or simply showing your kids that you enjoy eating them.

“Parents can start by just putting one or two vegetables the size of a dime on children’s plates,” says Amanda Gebhart, a registered dietitian with the UCI Health Weight Management Program. "As they get older, invite them to try a bite of a new vegetable or other food. Children's tastes change over time. Just because they didn't like it before doesn't mean they won't like it now, especially if it's in a new recipe or prepared differently."

These recipes created by Chef Jessica VanRoo, assistant director of Culinary Recreation & Experiential Programs at UC Irvine, are just the ticket to more nutritious — and peaceful — mealtimes.

Cheesy Egg and Veggie Breakfast Quesadilla

Serves 4 (Cost $7.10/$1.78 per serving)
Calories per serving:357

Egg and veggie breakfast quesadilla with avocado slices and salsa

Involving your kids in food preparation gives them a sense of responsibility for their meal. Children are less likely to refuse food they helped cook. This easy breakfast quesadilla is the perfect opportunity to let them try.

For instance, teach them to crack and whisk the eggs. Have them peel the vegetables or even learn to cut them with child-friendly tools. They also can help spoon the cooked ingredients into the wrap or sprinkle the cheese on top.

Any way you slice it, cooking together can be a fun way to introduce new foods and instill good nutritional habits.


  • 6 teaspoons avocado oil, split in thirds, or more as needed
  • 1 cup finely chopped vegetables (bell pepper, corn, zucchini, carrots, onion, etc.)
  • 3 eggs, whisked well
  • 4 whole wheat tortillas
  • ⅔–¾ cup shredded, reduced-fat sharp Cheddar cheese
  • Avocado and salsa to serve (optional)


  • Heat skillet or frying pan over medium-high heat.
  • Coat hot pan with ⅓ the oil.
  • When the oil gets hot, sauté the vegetables until soft, remove and set aside.
  • Wipe pan clean.
  • Heat another ⅓ of the oil, add egg and cook just until it sets.
  • Remove egg from pan, chop into bite-sized pieces.
  • Heat half the remaining oil in pan, turn heat to low and place a tortilla in pan.
  • Spread ¼ of the cheese, ½ the vegetables and eggs, ¼ more of the cheese and top with a tortilla.
  • Gently press down and cook for 2-3 minutes, or until brown and the cheese has melted on one side.
  • Flip and cook the other side for another 2-3 minutes.
  • Cut into 6 triangles.
  • Repeat with additional tortillas.
  • Serve with salsa and avocado if desired.

Veggie Chicken Nuggets

Serves 4-6 (Cost: $9.10/$1.52–$2.28 a serving)
Calories per serving: 504 for 4; 336 for 6

Veggie chicken nuggets

Hiding vegetables in a dish is a helpful strategy with picky eaters. This new spin on classic chicken nuggets adds carrots and your choice of cauliflower, broccoli or zucchini to the mix.

Carrots add sweetness and are a great source of several vitamins and minerals, especially biotin, potassium, and vitamin A (from beta carotene), which promotes good vision, growth and development as well as immune function.

Cauliflower is a low-calorie, high-fiber vegetable that contains almost every vitamin and mineral your body needs including vitamins C, K and B-6, along with folate, pantothenic acid, potassium, manganese, magnesium and phosphorus.

Zucchini is also full of potassium, B vitamins, dietary fiber and antioxidants, which can help improve a child's focus.



  • 1 lb ground chicken breast
  • 1 egg
  • 1 carrot grated
  • 1 cup riced cauliflower, finely chopped broccoli or grated zucchini
  • ¼ teaspoon salt


  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • ¾ cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 ½–2 cups panko crumbs


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Line baking sheet with parchment paper, spray with cooking spray and set aside.
  • In food processor, combine ground chicken, egg, carrots and other vegetables, and salt, mix well.
  • Form tablespoonfuls of mixture into nugget shapes.
  • Coat nuggets in flour, dip into beaten egg mix then coat with panko crumbs.
  • Place nuggets on prepared baking sheet, spray nuggets cooking spray, bake 20 minutes.
  • Flip nuggets, bake another 20 minutes.
  • Serve with side of sweet potato fries and ketchup.

Sweet potato fries with maple ketchup

Serves 6 (Cost: $6.57/$1.10 a serving)
Calories: 216 per serving

Sweet potatoes are starchy root vegetables that are rich in fiber, minerals and vitamins. They contain vitamin A to enhance vision and the fiber and antioxidants improve digestive and immune health. Studies have also shown that the nutrients in sweet potatoes can boost learning and memory. 



  • 3 large sweet potatoes
  • 5-7 tablespoons of cornstarch
  • 1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • Olive oil as needed

Maple ketchup

  • 7 ounces tomato paste
  • ½ cup distilled white vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons pure maple syrup
  • 4 tablespoons water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon onion powder
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder



  • Combine ingredients in medium saucepan over medium-high heat.
  • Whisk to blend ingredients until smooth.
  • Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, stirring frequently and scraping the sides of the saucepan with a spatula.
  • Simmer until thickened as desired (at least 20-25 minutes).
  • Remove pan from heat and allow to cool.
  • Transfer sauce to a jar, cap tightly. Refrigerate until needed. Makes about 1 ½ cups.


  • Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  • Peel and cut sweet potatoes into fries no thicker than a ½ inch.
  • Soak in bowl of water at least one hour, preferably half a day.
  • Drain water, lift cut potatoes by the handful, giving them a good shake. They should be moist enough for the cornstarch to stick.
  • Put cornstarch in a plastic bag and add cut potatoes. Blow a little air into the bag, twist the top and shake vigorously.
  • Place coated potatoes on one or two baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Potatoes should not be too crowded on the baking sheet or they’ll steam instead of get crispy.
  • Brush potatoes with olive oil to reduce sticking and improve crisping. (Tip: Spray oils provide great coverage with fewer calories.)
  • Bake 15 minutes then check. When bottom of fries are getting crisp, flip them over and cook 5-10 more minutes.
  • Serve with sauce on the side.

Veggie Stir-fry With Rice

Serves 6 (Cost $8.58-$15.07/$1.43–$2.51 a serving)
Calories per serving: 330 (with chicken); 358 (with steak); 310 (with tofu)

Veggie stir-fry

The appearance and texture of soggy, mushy veggies is usually a big turnoff for children. This quick and colorful stir-fry uses fresh vegetables and a choice of chicken breast, flank steak or tofu with a yummy sauce.

When prepared right, the crisp yet tender vegetables are sure to please the pickiest eater. This recipe also exposes your child to a variety of vegetables with different colors and textures.

Bell peppers are nutrient powerhouses that provide lots of vitamin C, vitamins A and K1, folate, potassium and many other antioxidants for immune health. They also contain vitamin E, which is essential for healthy nerves and muscles.

Broccoli turns a beautiful, bright green when stir-fried to tender perfection and looks like a miniature tree that can capture a child's imagination. It's also full of calcium, so important for growing bones, and it has an unusually strong combination of vitamins A and K to help balance little metabolisms.



  • 1 teaspoon baking soda (use for poultry and meat ONLY)
  • 12-16 oz chicken breast, flank steak or tofu
  • 2 teaspoons avocado oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced or diced
  • 1 sweet bell pepper, sliced
  • 3 ½ cups assorted vegetables such as carrots, broccoli and cauliflower florets, spinach, cabbage, zucchini, cut into bite-sized pieces


  • 1 cup rice, rinsed and drained well
  • 1 ½ cups bone broth or vegetable broth (or water)


  • ⅔ cup chicken stock, broth or water
  • 2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoons agave or honey
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce (optional)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon water mixed with 1 tablespoon arrowroot powder or cornstarch (optional thickener)
  • ¼ cup chopped green onions, cilantro, sesame seeds or peanuts for garnish



  • Cut protein into bite-sized pieces and set aside. (If using chicken or steak, coat in baking soda for 20 minutes, rinse and pat dry.)
  • Mix stir-fry sauce ingredients and set aside. (For thicker sauce, mix cornstarch and water in separate bowl and set aside.)
  • Heat wok or skillet over medium-high or high heat.
  • Add two teaspoons of oil or coat pan with oil using paper towel.
  • Heat chicken, steak or tofu until just golden brown, remove and set aside.
  • Coat pan with more oil if needed, add garlic and onions, stirring continuously to prevent burning.
  • When you begin to smell the garlic and onions, add harder vegetables (carrots, cauliflower and peppers) plus ½ a teaspoon of water to speed the cooking process.
  • Cook 2 minutes, then add remaining vegetables and cook 2-4 more minutes or until desired texture.
  • Add chicken, steak or tofu pieces to the vegetable mix,
  • Add sauce of your choice and thickener, toss all ingredients.
  • Stir well, allow to boil then turn off heat.


  • Combine rice with broth or water in a saucepan.
  • Bring to a boil over medium high heat — no lid.
  • Turn heat down to low, cover with lid and simmer for 13 minutes.
  • With lid still on, remove saucepan from heat and let stand for 10 minutes.
  • Fluff rice with rice paddle or fork.  
  • If making more than 1 or 2 cups, allow 20-25 minutes to cook thoroughly.

Serve stir-fry over ½ cup of rice. Garnish dish with your choice of scallions, sesame seeds or oil, cilantro or parsley and chopped peanuts.


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