If you Google “how to get a child to eat vegetables,” your browser will come back with about 36 million search results, from expert articles on eating behavior to elaborate recipes requiring numerous cookie cutters and some serious art talent.
Obviously, there are many of us looking for ways to improve our children’s eating habits by finally getting them to eat their peas. But this approach may be wrong.
Eating healthy foods cannot be a goal of food parenting. Rather, it is a possible consequence of using the right feeding strategy with your child.
Please don’t get me wrong. Vegetables are wonderfully nutritious, and I personally happen to think (my kids do not always agree) that they taste pretty good. But, after years of working with families as a pediatric dietitian and parenting my own kids, I know that when eating vegetables is viewed as a determinant of healthy eating habits, or, worse, parental worth, things can get very emotional and complicated.
A big focus on vegetables is a danger zone where children keep asking, “How many bites of broccoli before I can have dessert?,” and parents are tortured by shame and guilt when they see other people’s offspring piling up spinach on their plates.
But here is a thought. Instead of putting all our efforts into micromanaging every single bite why not to look at a bigger picture? By investing our time and effort into helping kids develop a healthy relationship with food, we can build a scaffolding that will enable them to eat better for many years to come even when we are not there to count bites or bribe with dessert.
Here are some of the questions we can ask ourselves to help our children feel good about eating, and eat in a more balanced way eventually.
Would it be ok if my child never touches vegetables? As a dietitian, I can assure you that normal growth and development are possible without eating ANY vegetables EVER. Before you learn to truly accept your child with all his quirky eating habits, it is hard to refrain from pressure and judgement at mealtimes and therefore, difficult to change the situation for better.
Do I want my child to feel good about enjoying lots of different foods or treat healthy options as a chore? If a variety of foods is what you are after, just keep serving meals, eating together as a family, and enjoying what is on your own plate. It is the easiest way to provide your child with neutral exposure to all the foods you want him to eventually start eating.
How can I strengthen my child’s innate ability to self-regulate? Small kids are the best at determining how much food they are hungry for. These two extra bites of broccoli you are pushing do not add lots of calories or nutrition. But they may teach your child to ignore their fullness signals. The beautiful thing about being attuned to one’s body is being able to stop when full, whether eating cauliflower or cookie.
Do I give even more power to already irresistible sweets and treats? Is getting treats contingent on how many bites of “healthier” foods your child takes at meals? In this case, it is time to turn the tables and start serving a small dessert with meals, not after. This will help neutralize the appeal of sweets and hopefully elevate the status of the food you made for dinner.
Finally, is the dinner table a place where everyone is treated with respect and positive attitude? Make sure each meal includes at least one food he is able to handle and then relax about how much and what he is eating. Instead of controlling each bite, start a non-food related conversation or ask everyone to share a story from their day.
With so much societal pressure to raise little foodies who cannot get enough of beets and prefer carrots to a carrot cake it is easy to overlook many other aspects of healthy eating, including feeling good about eating and trusting yourself around food. A more holistic, pressure-free approach to feeding is a better way to ensure a healthy diet for your child for many more years to come!
Natalia Stasenko MS, RDN is a registered dietitian and recognized pediatric nutrition expert. A mother of three, she uses evidence-based and always practical strategies to foster parents’ confidence and skills in feeding their children right. To read more of Natalia’s articles, visit her website, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.