Our writer tries eight methods for encouraging her picky eater to consume more vegetables. What worked — and what failed miserably.
Do your kids eat their vegetables? Do you pack their BPA-free bento lunchbox compartments with organic broccoli and bell pepper strips, and they come home from school or day care eaten?
If so, this story is not for you. In fact, you may want to avert your eyes — what you are about to read is for desperate parents and caregivers only.
Toddlers for whom the mere sight of peas on their plate is grounds for an hour-long tantrum. Kindergarteners who would rather sit at the dinner table for three hours lest their tongue touch a zoodle. Children who can home in on cauliflower-containing pizza crust like a bomb-sniffing dog in the airport security line. “White-food kids,” as The New York Times euphemism goes.
Full disclosure: I’m the parent of an only, so I admit I have it easier than many. But he is a thoroughbred fusspot — my mother reportedly didn’t eat a vegetable until she was 21 years old, and at age 39, I still have occasional struggles. In thinking of the last time my son willingly ate a fresh, intact vegetable, I’m mortified to admit it has been months. And this is in spite of my intentionally exposing him to a variety of foods and flavors in utero, during the brief time I was able to breastfeed, and during his infancy and toddlerhood. Unlike many kids, his pickiness emerged later, around late-preschool age.
Unfortunately, I’m not alone in worrying about whether my child is eating enough vegetables. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 1 in 10 kids and adults eats the recommended 2 to 3 cups per day. How is this heightened vegetable consumption supposed to happen, I wondered, given that the advice dispensed by most pediatric medical professionals — “serve a variety of healthy options and leave it up to the child to eat or not” — is basically equivalent to throwing thousands of dollars of organic produce directly into the garbage?
This year, I made it my mission to get my son to eat more vegetables without tears, wasted money or losing what little is left of my mind. Here’s which popular methods actually worked … and which methods he’ll be recounting to his therapist in 15 years.
1. GROW YOUR OWN
The concept: Surely the reason your kids aren’t eating their vegetables is because they think they’re slimy, mutant alien pods from another planet! Nurturing a plant from seed (or a start from Home Depot, if you have a black thumb as I do) to nutritious, sun-ripened leaf or cucurbit will not only foster an appreciation for plant stewardship, but also show your kids that vegetables aren’t so big and bad after all.
The reality: The deer and rabbits (and their children, I presume) ate every last bite of our garden while we were gone on a weeklong vacation. Is there a level below black thumb?
2. COOK YOUR OWN
The concept: As the reams of available kids’ cookbooks indicate, kids often like to cook what they eat. In fact, a somewhat obvious but widely available 2012 study in Canada found that children who are involved in meal preparation tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and have better diets than kids who aren’t.
The reality: I have tried this many times in the past to no avail (turns out broccoli is still broccoli, even if you’re the one holding the pan), so I signed my son up for a community-education cooking class to see if someone else telling him to make vegetables would do the trick. On Day 2, to my delight, he brought home a plastic cup containing a side dish of corn mixed with chopped celery and bell peppers. Me: “Oh, you brought home corn! It looks delicious!” Him: “I don’t want it.” Me: “But you made it!” Him: “It doesn’t mean I want to eat it.”
3. OFFER CHOICES
The concept: À la the popular Positive Discipline program, kids who can make their own choices from a parent-approved list feel a sense of agency while at the same time having no options other than compliance. For instance, the parent says, “For dinner, do you want carrot sticks, celery sticks or peas?” The child chooses either carrot sticks, celery sticks or peas and eats them happily because they themselves made the choice.
The reality: “I don’t want ANY of those!” whined my son when I offered him carrot sticks, celery sticks or peas. (As opposed to the broccoli and green beans my husband and I were having, the mere offering of which I knew would shut down any road to communication.)
“You have to choose one,” I offered. I was flailing and he knew it.
“But I don’t like them,” he responded.
“You can have a piece of candy if you eat them,” I said.
(20 minutes later) “Do I HAVE to eat these peas? I hate them.”
4. SERVE THEM REPEATEDLY
The concept: Many scientists believe children’s aversion to vegetables has a biological basis — being naturally drawn to sweeter, more calorically and carbohydrate-dense foods could provide an evolutionary advantage for still-growing kids in times of scarcity. And, further, this preference can be overcome with conditioning — a pediatrician we once saw told us young kids often need to try a food up to 20 times before deciding whether they like it.
The reality: If this research holds water, my son just hasn’t tried vegetables enough times. So, every night, I would persuade him to try something he had rejected. In this case, corn. After three days of him ignoring the corn as if it were some kind of mutant fungus encroaching on his hot dog, I, too, became worried about food safety and palatability, and the kernels ended up the trash. Whoever invented this method must not have real children.
5. COMPILE A “TASTE PLATE”
The concept: Offering small portions of the different vegetables being served on any given night will make vegetables seem more manageable, and — in theory — kids might even find out they like something they previously thought they hated.
The reality: On a night I knew my husband and I were having something especially kid-repugnant (in this case, kale salad), I made sure to tear up small pieces and put them on a plate for my son to try. I remember this actually working a few times when he was a toddler, but as a 6-year-old, he acted as if I’d suffered a debilitating head injury. “Mom, I hate kale, REMEMBER?”
6. REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY
The concept: Science says reverse psychology works for kids — especially young boys — and my son is no exception. He’s always had an oppositional streak, and telling him not to do something is practically a guarantee he will find a way to do it. Perhaps the compulsion to thwart my wishes will override his resistance to something as offensive as vegetables?
The reality: “Here’s a bowl of beans and pasta, but please don’t eat the kale,” I explained with great earnestness. “I need to save it for something else, so whatever you do, don’t touch it.” He ate every last piece of kale.
The concept: Though books like Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious and Missy Chase Lapine’s The Sneaky Chef have been popular for well over a decade, exhorting parents to hide pureed vegetables and beans in kid favorites like brownies and mac ‘n’ cheese, the voices of opposition are strong. Detractions include the fact this method does little to change kids’ minds about vegetables, it’s basically lying, and it’s not modeling healthy habits.
The reality: The detractors have valid points, but unfortunately, it works. My son despises spinach, but will devour nearly 4 cups of it when it’s pureed and mixed with cream cheese to make a neon-green sauce that looks like a martian interpretation of Kraft cheese (recipe below). I did not mention the coloring came from spinach, and he didn’t ask, though I would’ve been honest if he had.
8. OFFER A BRIBE
The concept: What are parents but occasionally corrupt dictators of a compact, sticky, lawless country? Embrace your status and use dessert, prizes or even small amounts of cash as a bribe in entreating your kids to eat their vegetables. Sure, it teaches them that difficult things aren’t worth doing unless there’s instant gratification, and reinforces the idea that eating vegetables is “work,” but if you grew up in the ’70s or ’80s, it’s probably what your parents did, and you turned out fine. … Right?
The reality: For better or for worse, this is the go-to method in our household. My son will often forgo dessert to avoid eating vegetables he has deemed permanently inedible, such as broccoli, but the promise of a small handful of jelly beans or Sour Patch Kids after dinner is enough to persuade him to eat most others.
When is ‘pickiness ‘ an actual medical concern?
Many parents simply roll their eyes when kids refuse to eat their vegetables, but when does picky eating cross the line to become a disorder? According to Connie Liakos, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D., L.D., pediatric dietitian at Pediatric Associates of the Northwest in Portland, picky eating is a normal stage for most kids — especially toddlers between the ages of 1 and 3 who are likely just learning to assert their independence. However, extreme selectiveness that persists past this age could be a sign of Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), a relatively new diagnosis in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Children with ARFID are at high risk of both caloric and nutritional deficits, which could affect long-term growth. How does a parent tell the difference between ARFID, which often occurs alongside anxiety disorders, ADHD and autism spectrum conditions, and run-of-the-mill “I don’t want that”? According to Liakos:
• Picky kids eat around 30 foods, while “problem feeders” eat fewer than 20, a number that continues to drop as time goes on.
• Wholesale rejection of certain textures and food groups could be a matter of concern, as simply picky kids will eat at least one food from each texture or food group.
• Kids with ARFID tend to fall apart if a new food is introduced onto their plate, even if they’re given the option not to eat it.
• Picky kids will generally eat a new food after being exposed to it about 10 times, while ARFID children rarely will, no matter how many times it’s offered.
• Extreme rigidity when it comes to feeding routines and mealtimes, consistent and intense sensory avoidance (too crunchy, too cold, et al.), and difficulty even touching a new food are all red flags.
If you’re worried your child could have ARFID, talk to their pediatrician or a pediatric dietitian. They may recommend increasing nutritious, calorie-dense foods such as nuts or avocado, or refer your family to an interdisciplinary feeding team, which specializes in complex feeding issues.
- Take your kids to Costco. I don’t know what it is about the Costco samples, but my son and most of his friends will eat literally anything if it’s handed to them in a paper cup by a kindly elderly woman with a hairnet. Fish, spicy salsa, sauteed zucchini — the sky’s the limit. Go two days in a row, and your kids just might amass enough greenery for a serving.
- Point out the scientific virtues of certain vegetables. Like asparagus. What kid wouldn’t find it hilarious to make their pee as odoriferous as possible, as in the case of asparagus, or discover the wonder of post-digestion beetroot pigment?
- Serve only veggies one night. I did not try this because I couldn’t find a night where I was up for being woken up repeatedly by a child who had eaten nothing for dinner, but if anyone is brave enough to serve nothing but vegetables for dinner to a picky eater, please report back!
“MARTIAN” MAC ‘N’ CHEESE
8 ounces dry pasta in a fun shape
1 ¼ teaspoons table salt
4 ½ cups fresh spinach
1 ½ teaspoons olive oil
2 tablespoons water
1 small garlic clove
2 ounces cream cheese
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
1. Cook pasta with 1 teaspoon of salt in a large pot of boiling water to al dente, per package directions.
2. In a blender, combine spinach, olive oil, water, garlic and remaining ¼ teaspoon of salt (or more to taste) until smooth.
3. Drain pasta and return to pot. Add pureed spinach mixture and cream cheese and stir until creamy, adding lemon juice near the end.
4. Top with grated Parmesan if desired.
5. Reassure your kids that it’s too cold on Mars to grow vegetables.