Parents worry when their children do not eat vegetables.
And, I understand why.
Parents know that vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet, and get frustrated when they are consistently left on their child’s plate.
The result? Parental “veggie-stress.”
Although veggie-stress begins at the family dinner table, it can be amplified by the rather faddish way parents talk about poor vegetable eaters within playgroups. Conversations among parents can support mutual feelings of veggie-refusing frustration, or create feelings of defeat when a mother proudly claims that spinach is her 18-month-old’s favorite food.
To avoid the worry about a child’s vegetable intake, some parents jump to crazy short term “solutions” to make the veggies disappear. From fantastical airplane spoons to daily homemade veggie-smoothies; I am often amazed by the tactical maneuvers used to get children to swallow green produce.
The happy reality is that although parents may be upset that their children are refusing “anything green,” most of these children are following their growth curves with precision.
Appropriate growth reinforces the general rule that kids will eat a relative balance of nutritional foods if consistently offered over time. Therefore, for those families struggling with veggie-refusers, I suggest stepping back from the hyper-veggie-focus and approach balanced eating from a broader perspective.
Here are 3 suggestions.
1. Eat how you want your children to eat. Including vegetables. When a parent is concerned about their child’s eating habits, I often ask to describe in detail the eating habits of both parents. Typical patterns often emerge. Parents without a healthy balance of food on their own plate. Parents who provide a perfectly balanced meal for their children, while fixing an entirely different meal for themselves to eat after the kids go to bed. Even parents who admit their own hatred of vegetables.
It makes fairly simple sense that if a parent does not eat a balanced meal with their children, it is unrealistic to expect their kids will voluntarily choose to eat a balanced meal. Even at the dinner table, actions speak louder than words.
So, next time you see veggies left on your child’s plate, take a new approach. First, be sure the veggies you expect your child to eat are on your own plate. Then, happily eat them all. Once your child says he is finished, gobble up their veggie leftovers. Seeing a parent eating two servings of green will more influential impact than waiting for them to “take just one bite” ever will. Be patient while waiting for positive change.
2. Lead the mealtime experience. Many parents who are struggling with a child’s heathy eating will say, “The daycare provider says she always finishes her vegetables at lunch. I don’t believe it. She never touches them at home.”
I would argue she likely does eat all her veggies during lunch for 3 reasons. First, she is hungry. Second, she knows lunch is her opportunity to eat. Third, she knows she is offered only one meal option. In short, the expectation of the daytime meal experience is very clear.
If your child is not eating veggies, consider the expectations you have created for the entire meal experience. Are you prioritizing the meal to be an undistracted, technology-free space optimized for family time and food eating? Are you offering too many options or alternatives, catering to a child’s whims rather than guiding what is expected? Are you feeding your child in order to avoid consequences of an empty tummy (tantrums, night wakings) rather than to teach the meal traditions and expectations of your home? Is your child truly not hungry after having such a great lunch and afternoon snack?
Honor your responsibility to create what you consider a balanced meal, at a consistent time and place. Join your child at the table with the meal you have prepared. Then, allow your child the time and opportunity to eat. This simple, effective, meal time leadership will nurture life-long healthy habits.
3. Don’t underestimate your child’s natural desire for balanced nutrition. Balanced nutrition is best obtained from eating a wide variety of whole, natural foods.
Don’t be mislead that nutrition can be simplified into a compartmentalized, 24-hour quota. Dietary recommendations are based on averages over time, not the needs of each day.
Although it can be difficult to remain patient when your child limits the foods they will eat, try not to emphasize a short-lived veggie-limiting phase by creating bad habits. Offering “safety-net” choices or extra snacks- just to get one more serving of veggies eaten before bedtime – will not accomplish the goal of a raising a veggie-loving adult.
For kids who are growing well, give yourself permission to allow normal fluctuations in a child’s quantity and variety of food choices. Children will consume a fairly balanced diet, if consistently offered a variety of food groups. And for most, the simple habit of routinely offering veggies is all that is needed for the love of veggies to ultimately develop.
Talk to your child’s pediatrician if you are concerned about your child’s nutrition. Until that visit, you may enjoy Eat Your Vegetables! and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining how to Raise Healthy Eaters, by Dr. Natalie Digate Muth. The book provides a very detailed approach to nutritional parenting.
Natasha Burgert is a pediatrician who blogs at KC Kids Doc.