On days I'm not wearing my dietitian hat, I stay home to take care of my twin toddlers. In the course of playground banter with other moms, the topic of picky eating inevitably comes up. And by far, the number one complaint I hear is that their kids won't eat vegetables.
I can certainly sympathize. My being a dietitian doesn't mean my kids are genetically hard-wired to love vegetables. Weeks have gone by where green veggies remain untouched on one—or both—of my kids' plates, and the only vegetable matter they consume is a lone sweet potato fry, possibly by accident when they thought it was something else. But then, just as mysteriously, a broccoli binge may come from out of the blue, and they're furiously cramming florets in their little mouths, with little interest in the pile of macaroni and cheese on their plates.
While you can neither force a love of vegetables, nor predict the timing of ultimate acceptance—and enjoyment—of a vegetable, there are several things you can do to raise children who happily eat a variety of vegetables…at least sometimes.
• Rethink your role in the feeding relationship. If you're not familiar with Ellyn Satter's authoritative book on feeding children, Child of Mine, get thee to a bookstore. Satter teaches that your job as a parent is not to "get vegetables into them," but rather to prepare and offer a variety of healthful foods (including veggies) throughout the day. Once the veggie is on the table, your job is done, and it's your kids' job to decide whether or not to eat them. No pressure, no commentary (however benign), no bribery, no cajoling, period. The trick—and challenge—is to remain visibly agnostic and emotionally uninvested in what they put in their mouths. Kids can smell a veggie agenda a mile away, and to paraphrase Satter, if you have to force them to eat it, how good will they think it really is? If you've gotten to the point where you're sneaking pureed spinach into their brownies, you're officially focusing too much on getting veggies "into them" rather than fostering a lifelong habit of eating vegetables. Step. Away. From. The. Blender.
• Diversify your Vitamin Portfolio. If your concern about adequate nutrition is undermining your ability to stay appropriately agnostic about your child's vegetable intake, put your mind to rest by offering other foods that feature the same vitamins. If your child rejects Vitamin A-rich veggies like spinach, carrots, or squash, you can include more mango, dried apricots, or baked sweet potato fries in their meals. If she won't go near Vitamin C-rich veggies like broccoli or red peppers, foods like strawberries, kiwi, and cantaloupe can deliver the goods. If folate-rich veggies like leafy greens, asparagus, or beets aren't your child's cup of tea, try including chickpeas, papaya, or oranges into the rotation. Also, keep in mind that young children have lower requirements for most vitamins than adults do, and that many cereals and bread products are heavily fortified with vitamins and minerals as well. As a result, children's needs are generally being met with much smaller portions and a narrower diet than you probably realize.
• Make vegetables appealing. Instead of investing energy into whether they eat, redirect your efforts into finding new ways to prepare and present vegetables. Kids are sensitive to bitter tastes, so don't be surprised if a lightly steamed, unadorned crudité doesn't have them begging for more. Cheese sauces, peanut sauces, ranch dips, and pesto can help tame the astringency of veggies and make them more appealing to younger palates, as can stir-fries with Asian flavors or butter and garlic. Growing kids can afford the extra calories, so don't think you're making the vegetables "unhealthy" by dressing them up a little bit. Having said this, if you put all the effort into a new veggie dish and they still reject it, remind yourself that it's their prerogative to do so. More for you!
• Think outside the side. It's great for kids to get used to seeing a balanced plate—featuring a protein, a starch, and a vegetable—at mealtime, but this formulaic view of a vegetable's proper place in the diet can be limiting. Canned pumpkin puree and a dash of cinnamon adds delicious flavor to store bought pancake mix, and shredded carrots or zucchini can play a starring role in low-sugar, whole-grain muffins. Sliced cucumber spears, edamame (boiled soybeans), roasted seaweed sheets, or freeze-dried green beans all make terrific and portable snacks that, to your surprise, your kids may actually enjoy (mine did!). The more often you offer vegetables, the more vegetables your child is likely to eat.
• Don't give up! My best friend recently complained that her toddler has stopped eating all vegetables, even those squeezable pouches of fruit/vegetable puree that she used to love. When I asked which veggies she's been serving at meals, she admitted that she just stopped offering them because she was frustrated by her daughter's constant refusal and tired of wasting so much food. Wrong answer. If you don't serve vegetables, how can you expect them to eat vegetables? You never know which day your child's broccoli binge may arrive. Never give up.
• Be the change you want to see in the world. Family meals are an important time for kids to learn desired mealtime behaviors. It's important for your child to see others eating a variety of foods, and doing so can often inspire them to at least try a new vegetable, even if they don't like it right away. When we first introduced asparagus—grilled until soft and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese—we did so at a family lunch on the weekend. The asparagus was in a large serving plate in the middle of the table, and mom and dad each took a spear with our fingers and ate it. This so intrigued the kids that they started reaching for the plate, begging for their own spear. While Max tried a bite and wasn't impressed, Stella ate enough to produce two diapers bearing the hallmark scent of asparagus pee. Aaah … the sweet smell of victory.
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Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a NYC-based registered dietitian whose clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.