“You’re telling me I don’t need to tell my kids to eat vegetables to get them to eat them?” my client’s eyes got wide, she shook her head, and looked at me like I was from another planet.
She couldn’t quite understand how she could possibly get her toddler to eat their veggies – without bribing, forcing or pressuring. But what she was doing (yes, bribing, forcing and pressuring) wasn’t working, so she was willing to give my methods a shot.
Spoiler alert: it worked.
As we get ready to dive into how to get toddlers and kids to eat their veggies when they refuse, let’s talk about why it happens, what’s the long-term goal, and what you can do right now.
Why is vegetable refusal so common?
Toddlers, school-age children and even adolescents often go through a picky or selective phase. It’s a normal part of development, and often veggies are the culprit – they tend to taste more bitter then their sweet counterparts (like fruit and carbohydrates), but that doesn’t mean they are out forever.
There are absolutely ways to help your child eat vegetables when they refuse. And that starts with thinking about what you want in the long-term and why it’s okay if your child is refusing vegetables right now.
The biggest feeding myth surrounding vegetables
One of the myths I bust in Conquering Mealtimes 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 found in vegetables.
Children can absolutely meet their nutrition needs without eating vegetables. If you have specific concerns for your child, absolutely reach out to a registered dietitian.
But before we think about our child needing to eat vegetables right now – let’s talk about them getting comfortable with those veggies – which will pay off tenfold in the long-term.
Why focus on long-term love of veggies?
Let’s reframe the thinking around your little one’s vegetable consumption.
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 right for them – to foster a healthy and positive relationship with food.
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?
The problem with bribing, tricking and forcing
Parents often respond with bribes or forcing: we want our kids to eat vegetables to get nutrients for their growing bodies, so we’ll offer a reward to change their behavior.
But, here’s what happens:
“Johnny, when you finish your broccoli, you will get your dessert.”
What’s happening in Johnny’s mind?
“I have to eat my broccoli (yuck) to get my reward/ dessert (yum)”
This may work in the short term, but it’s not sustainable in the long run.
Short vs long-term goals
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 appropriate for them.
These short-term goals may be met with supplements, fortified foods, or the foods they usually eat (and it may not be vegetables).
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 and interactions to new foods has much more of an impact than short-term bribes.
Now, let’s dive in.
Here are 5 things you can do right now to get your toddler to eat vegetables, and instill a long-term love of veggies in your little one.
5 ways to get your toddler or child eating vegetables
Eat with your child
When your child has a meal or snack, 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 work.
At these meals and snacks, I eat the same food as the rest of my family. If I eat a veggie my kids are not yet eating, by eating that food in front of them, I give them an opportunity for a gentle exposure to that food.
Eating together, or family meals provides 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.
Make small changes to the foods your child already eats.
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 to get 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 get them closer to eating the food. Stop only focusing on your child eating the vegetables, an exposure gets them more comfortable with the food, which is absolutely a win.
4. How you talk about food can be as important as the food itself
How we talk about food can be 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. Think outside the box (outside the kitchen)
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 with exposures to that food.
Feeding kids is not easy (like parenting), but these 5 action items are things you can do right now to help your child eat vegetables, and more importantly, foster a long-term love of them
The next time you are ready to plead and beg your child to just take one bite – stop – remember these strategies.
Ready for even more tips to help your little one try new food? Check out my free guide: 4 steps to get your little ones eating new foods.