On my daughter’s second birthday, she was presented with a small cupcake after dinner. After we helped her blow out the candles, we all watched with anticipation as she began to taste the sweet treat before her. Someone cheered as she took her first bite. Her diet at two years had included small amounts of sugar and the extremely rare dessert. She devoured her cupcake as the adults clapped, laughed, and enjoyed their own treats.
Since then I’ve wondered, what would happen if we cheered for vegetables like we cheer for cupcakes? Why don’t we? Is it because vegetables are included in nearly all our meals, are more the norm, and not an occasional cheer-worthy-event like a cupcake? Given the high rates of child diabetes in our country today, I have to believe that the opposite is true. Most kids are eating way too much sugar and way too few vegetables. More probable is that it is because adults also struggle to eat their veggies. The most widely consumed vegetables in America are potatoes and those found on a hamburger – tomatoes (often from ketchup) and iceberg lettuce. If we want to raise a healthy generation of kids, we need to do better.
But how? I struggle with how to be a balanced mom, one who is fun and relaxed while also setting appropriate limits. There is so much pressure and judgement from every angle. Buy organic. Shop only at the farmers’ market. Cook all your own veggies. Don’t buy processed foods. These things are great when you have unlimited time and money and I love shopping at local farms. But sometimes I just can’t do it!
And then there is the reality of trying to get kids to eat healthfully. A toddler laying on her stomach in my kitchen at 7:15 am yelling, “I want a cookie, nnnooooowwww!!!” It doesn’t matter that she has never in her life had a cookie for breakfast. I can’t hand her a carrot and shove her out the door to daycare. I have to be with her in this moment. Understanding that yes, some days I’d like a cookie for breakfast too and it is a real bummer that we can’t have it. I have to go with her to her room and help her calm her anger and then find a way to get her to eat something, anything that will be better than sending her off with a sugar high. It is really hard.
Believe me, I don’t have it all figured out either, but with an increasingly picky toddler in the house, I’ve learned a few tips to keep veggies in my daughters’ diet without the fight:
Don’t Stop Trying!
It makes me a little crazy when I hear parents say that their children will only eat mac n’ cheese or PB&J. I should note that there are some cases where I accept that this is reality. Kids with sensory or speech issues often struggle with textures and may have a difficult time stomaching vegetables. You may want to consult with your doctor or a speech therapist if you are noticing these issues.
However, around age two, almost all kids become fairly picky and start protesting certain foods. In my home, we serve our daughter the things we are also eating. We try to abide by the increasingly popular concept that we choose what she eats and when she eats and she chooses how much. Generally, we stick to this but not in a very strict way. Encourage her to try a little of everything as we eat dinner as a family nearly every night. We enjoy the predictability and time to spend together, even if dinner only lasts 15 minutes. We try not to have a lot of snacks after dinner either as a way to encourage our daughter to eat during meal times. But we are flexible and if she seems to be hungry after dinner we find a way to work together to find a solution.
Something I’ve learned through continually offering vegetables is that kids tastes change rapidly. Within about a week I’ve seen my daughter go from not wanting to try broccoli to it being her favorite food. There are so many factors that affect this – mood, fatigue, watching friends eat – that continuing to try veggies is worth it. At the very least, exposure to vegetables is going to be positive in the long-term.
Think about how your own tastes have changed throughout your life. When I was a kid I hated asparagus and beets but now I love them both. Most adults have a similar story about vegetables so be patient and keep trying. You never know when they might change their minds.
Be a Good Example
I recently heard a wonderful parenting quote: “You shouldn’t expect your child to be better than you.” While I have high hopes that she will be miles smarter and more successful than me, I think it is wise that we as parents can’t expect more of our children than what we have done. In this context, we can’t expect our children to eat loads of veggies when we aren’t willing to do the same. When your child sees you eating veggies, they are more likely to follow suit…at least eventually.
Make it a Game
Recently, my husband came up with the DADDY CHALLENGE!! It is a game with its own song and consists of my husband challenging my daughter to do something that she wasn’t thrilled about doing. The fanfare of this challenge has been highly motivating. I think he is a genius!
The first Daddy Challenge was for my daughter to try her chicken and broccoli casserole and to include a bite with all the ingredients. She quickly completed the challenge and was asking for more. The reward at the end is my husband telling her in an excited voice that she completed the Daddy Challenge! That’s it! So simple and yet so effective. Sometimes things that seem silly or insignificant to us are so meaningful to our children. We all crave praise and when you recognize with praise the actions you want to see from your child, the more likely they will be to continue that action. Easy, right?
Get Them Involved
When you make the trip to the farm or the grocery store, invite your child to pick out a vegetable they haven’t tried before. Let this be an opportunity for the family to discover something new together. Just make sure to watch your own reactions since your child is watching your every move.
If you won’t try something new, they will learn that they should be wary of trying new foods too. You may have to come home and research how to cook the new vegetable. Your child can help! Find ways to get them involved in the cooking. If your child is younger, maybe they can scoop cut veggies into a bowl. Maybe they can be in charge of washing. Cooking isn’t all using knifes and hot skillets. Look for those in between moments when your child can have a hand in preparation. When children get involved, they are more likely to try their veggies at the dinner table.
A Note on Hiding Veggies
In general, I am against hiding veggies in foods. The goal is for kids to become familiar and comfortable with eating vegetables and that won’t happen if they don’t realize they are eating them. Additionally, kids are smart. It is likely they will figure out that you’re deceiving them at some point when they catch you in the act and it will all backfire. I’ve heard of parents whose kids won’t eat anything that they don’t see coming out of the box because they are scared of the hidden vegetables. Of course there are exceptions. I even hide vegetables from myself sometimes to get the added nutrients. But let’s be real. Cauliflower rice doesn’t taste exactly like rice so why try to pretend that it’s the same thing?
We can all use some encouragement when it comes to eating our veggies. We can go a long way by stopping the fight and starting to cheer instead!