Is your child refusing vegetables? Shift your thinking (How and why it’s important).

Parents frequently ask, “how can we get our children to eat vegetables?” It is so common for toddler and preschool age children to go through a picky, or more selective phase when it comes to food, and vegetables many times fall off the repertoire. Just as commonly, parents respond with bribes or forcing: we want our kids to eat vegetables in order to get nutrients for their growing bodies, so we’ll offer a reward to change their behavior. Instead of thinking about bribing or forcing our little ones to eat vegetables (which may lead to short term consumption, but that’s about it), I have another way.

Let’s reframe the thinking around your little one’s vegetable consumption. So many parents are concerned that their children are not eating vegetables. One of the myths I talk about in my peaceful mealtimes class is that children need to be eating vegetables to meet their nutritional needs. This is simply not true. Many young ones eat fruit and not vegetables for a period of time, and most fruit contains the same vitamins and minerals that are found in vegetables. Children can absolutely meet their nutrition needs without eating vegetables. If you have specific concerns, by all means contact me. But let’s think about exposure to vegetables before we think about getting your little one eating vegetables. I imagine you want what most parents want: to raise a child who can trust their own body around food, to eat what they need to grow at the rate that is right for them. Once they are making more choices about food for themselves, we want them to choose vegetables, right? Which is why bribing and forcing don’t work in the long run- once our bribes aren’t there, what will kids choose?

During stressful moments at mealtimes, it may seem like the battle is right there on the plate. However, I encourage you to think of both short and long term goals. Short term goals are related to meeting our children’s immediate nutrition needs: making sure they are obtaining the appropriate amounts of calories, protein and fat, meeting their vitamin and mineral needs, and growing and gaining weight at a rate that is appropriate for them.

Now, when we look at long term goals we are thinking about the big picture: expanding our little one’s food repertoire. This is where I want you to think about vegetables. In the long term, exposure to new foods has much more of an impact than short-term bribes.

Here are a few things you can do to help encourage your little one to interact with new vegetables, and new foods in general:

  1. Eat with your child. When your child is having a meal or snack, try to sit down with them, or choose specific times throughout the day to sit with them. For my family, dinner and morning or afternoon snack are times when I sit with my children. It is not realistic for me to sit with them at every meal (can you relate), so we choose times throughout the day that this works. At these meals and snacks, I am eating the same food as the rest of my family. Eating together, or family meals, provide an opportunity for you as a caregiver or parent to role model eating these foods, which encourages your child to eat them as well. Showing is more powerful than telling.

  2. Make small changes. In my 4 steps guide to eating new foods, I outline this step in detail. I recommend making small changes to the foods your child is already eating. I highly recommend working through my steps. You will want to take some of the foods your child is currently eating and make small changes to expand to another food. Do they like nutella or nut butter? Make a dip with this and yogurt and offer with carrot and celery sticks. The key is exposure and getting them feeling comfortable around these new foods. Do they like crunchy carrots? Offer jicama sticks. Do they like salt and sour flavors? Season raw crunchy broccoli with salt and lemon juice, and better yet, let them help.

  3. Celebrate small wins. As I mentioned exposure is key, provide new vegetables at meal and snack time, without the expectation that your child will eat this food. Did they touch a slice of eggplant, smell a grilled slice of zucchini or lick roasted cauliflower? These are all wins. These exposures to the food are getting them closer to eating the food.

  4. Think about how you talk about food. How we talk about food can be just as important as what we serve. Instead of “try this, just take one bite” use a phrase like “this broccoli tickles my tongue” or “this broccoli is bumpy, do you feel that?” This language is using encouragement rather than pressure. Pressure can cause little ones to take a step back and disengage.

  5. Get them in the kitchen. Getting kids in the kitchen is one of my favorite ways to expose them to new foods. Have a child that won’t go near vegetables at dinner time, but love to help cook? See if they will chop or peel while you are preparing. Even if they are not eating the foods they are preparing, you are still providing them exposures to that food.

Ready to dive further into your little ones trying new food? Check out my free guide: 4 steps to get your little ones eating new foods.