Winning the Vegetable War

Family Health, Featured Article, Healthy Living, Healthy Recipes and Nutrition, Nutrition
on March 22, 2012

Do you find yourself doing backflips to get your kids to eat vegetables? Begging them to take just one bite?

You’re not alone. Only 22 percent of kids ages 2 to 5 get the government recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables a day (based on their age, sex and activity level, and which you can calculate at Older kids are even worse. Just 16 percent of children ages 6 to 11 and 11 percent of children ages 12 to 18 eat the recommended amounts.

Kids do go through phases, and some are definitely pickier eaters than others. But there are ways to reduce fussiness, make vegetables more acceptable and stop making mealtime into a battle, says Edward Abramson, author of It’s NOT Just Baby Fat: 10 Steps to Help Your Child to a Health Weight. Here’s what he suggests.

Stay out of the fray.  If your child refuses a vegetable, retreat gracefully and try again later, Abramson says. “Avoid lectures, big discussions or threats,” he says. “Otherwise, it becomes a battle of wills, and you are setting up vegetables–or any type of food–as a weapon a child can use in the struggle for power.”

But keep trying. Research shows that it can take 10 to 12 times of offering a food before a child will begin eating it regularly, so don’t give up, Abramson says.  Continue to encourage eating. Ask the child to take one taste, but don’t force it.

Exploit hunger. Put out a tray of raw veggies and dip for kids to snack on before dinner.

Have Meatless Mondays. Have a vegetarian meal one night a week. Veggie pizza, bean burritos with tomatoes and lettuce, and spinach lasagna are all popular options.

Make dessert a demilitarized zone. “If you withhold dessert unless a child eats his vegetables, you’re telling the child that dessert is more valuable than vegetables,” Dr. Abramson says. If you feel like you have to “bribe” your child, do it with a non-food item, he advises. “Tell the child, ‘You can’t watch your favorite TV show unless you finish your broccoli.’” 

Practice tough love. What if dessert is all the kid wants to eat?  Don’t give in and don’t worry about it. “They won’t starve,” Abramson says. “You can say `I will wrap up the plate and put it in the refrigerator and if you are hungry later you can have it then.’ “

Do as you say. “It’s important for your child to see mom and dad eating vegetables with enthusiasm, so pay attention to how you approach vegetables yourself,” Abramson says. “Parents frequently forget that one of the most potent things they can do is to model the desired behavior.”

Apply peer pressure. Even more potent than parents’ behavior may be a brother, sister or friend who makes eating vegetables fun and cool. Research shows that kids‘ eating behavior is strongly influenced by their peers. If you see one of your child’s friends enjoying vegetables, invite them to dinner, often!

Let them pick and choose. Green beans or carrots? Cheese or nuts? Involve your child in decisions about how the vegetable might be prepared, says Abramson. “Any time a child gets to give some input, the more likely he is to participate in eating the food.”

Get her cooking. Likewise, if a child is involved in preparing the food, she is less likely to refuse to taste a food, Abramson says. Give your kids fun tasks, like grating carrots or using a salad spinner.

Help them grow their own. It’s easy to start a pot of parsley on a windowsill, or sprout a sweet potato in a jar of water. A backyard garden plot is even better. Involve your child in planting, watering and harvesting a crop, then cooking and eating it.  Few kids will turn down such an offer, Abramson says. 

Focus on presentation. Like adults, kids appreciate fresh vegetables in season, nicely presented. Avoid canned vegetables, and don’t overcook frozen or fresh ones.

Give peas a chance. Break your kids in on sweeter vegetables like carrots and peas. Save stronger-flavored vegetables like Brussels sprouts and asparagus for later.