Kids & Veggies
By: Ashley Barnes MS, RD, LD
One of the most common feeding questions that parents have is “How do I get
my kids to eat their veggies?!?!?” In our culture it is common to assume that children will
not eat vegetables unless coerced, pressured or rewarded. Is it true that vegetables
often contain complex flavors and textures that are challenging to learn to like, even for
adults. Vegetables are also highly variable in their presentation.
Let’s take the polar opposite of the grocery store tomatoes (I know they are
technically a fruit but tomatoes provide an excellent example here) available in
December in Minnesota and the fresh, just picked off the vine tomato in your CSA
share. Many tomato lovers would agree that those are two totally different foods with
completely different flavors and textures. Additionally, there are unlimited tomato flavors
and textures in between those two extremes. As adults we understand that despite the
difference in color, flavor and texture, all are just variations of a tomato. Adults may or
may not tolerate these differences. Children, especially young children, are often not
able to comprehend that these two totally different looking, tasting foods are actually
just variations of the same food. So every “new” tomato is like a new food experience.
When we understand that it can take upwards of 10 -20 (or more) experiences
with a new food for a child to learn to feel comfortable with, it is no wonder that
vegetables can take longer for children to enjoy. Repeated, non-pressured exposures to
vegetables as well as using kid-friendly helpers when serving veggies such as butter,
dips and spices as accompaniments, are key to a child who will come to enjoy at least
some vegetables over time. A sure fire way to reduce intake of any food, including
veggies, is to use pressure or coercion in an attempt to get kids to eat anything.
Let’s explore 4 common, well-intentioned ways that adults use pressure to entice
children to eat vegetables and consider the hidden messages that children hear:
1) Parent says: “ You have to take at least one “no-thank you” bite. It’s good! You’ll
like it! Just try it!”
What the child hears: If this food really tastes so good why are you insisting that I have
to take a bite. I never have to be persuaded to take a bite of cookies or crackers. Huh? I
guess I’ll do it to make Mom/Dad happy but I am really suspicious that it is as good as
they say it is if I “have to” take a bite.. I don’t think I will try that food again once I have a
choice in the matter.
2) You have to eat your veggies before you can have dessert.
What the child hears:These veggies are just something I have to eat in order to get to
the tasty food I really enjoy, dessert! Veggies are obviously not very good but I am going
to eat them for now in order to get to eat the foods I really like. It is like getting my
homework done so I can get to what I really want to do like playing with my toys.
3) You can have a sticker/prize if you try a new veggie.
What the child thinks: If this food really tastes so good why do I get a sticker/reward for
eating it. I never get a sticker or reward for eating cookies or crackers. Huh? I guess I’ll
do it for now to get the sticker but this food must be really bad tasting if I need to be
rewarded to eat it. I don’t think I will eat it when I can choose for myself.
4) If my kid won”t eat veggies I will just “sneak” them into other foods.
What the child thinks: This is unique and tricky because some children will notice the
addition of veggies being snuck into their food faster than others. Whenever they do
catch on their radar will be up. This approach to presenting foods can often lead to more
struggles with trying new foods as children become suspicious of what your food really
contains. “Sneaking” vegetables into food instead of presenting them in ways your
family enjoys actually deprives the child of a chance to look at, touch and eventually
taste the vegetable. All are necessary, repeated experiences that children need to learn
what food they do and do not enjoy.
A rewarding approach, for both adults and children, in the feeding relationship is
to present veggies at the family table along with all the other foods. Make them tasty
and enjoyable. Offer dips, sauces and dressings to increase palatability for your child.
Let the child decide what goes on their plate and let them serve themselves as early as
possible. There will be more food waste in the beginning but will lessen with time. Make
sure there is a food your child likes at each meal such as milk or bread with butter. In
this way children can get their eating done even if they are not ready for some of the
more challenging flavors at the table. Remind yourself that pressure may work in the
short term but can lead to other, more challenging struggles with food later in life. When
you don’t have to worry about pressuring your child to eat you get to sit back and enjoy
the meal instead of fretting about what your child is eating.
Happy feeding from Eat with Permission!