Kids and Veggies: A Better Way

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For the sake of your kids’ health and development, it’s critical that you win the battle to get them to eat their veggies! With seemingly formidable forces stacked against you in this timeless struggle, simple, practical tactics work best.

One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons shows an extremely displeased Calvin at the dinner table scowling and refusing to eat the “green stuff” on his plate. His ever imperturbable father doesn’t miss a beat, nods his head, and says, “Good idea, Calvin. It’s a plate of toxic waste that will turn you into a mutant if you eat it.” This sounds like a great idea to Calvin, of course, and he immediately devours his entire meal with great enthusiasm. His mother looks on skeptically and says, “There has GOT to be a better way to make him eat!”

Indeed, one of the consistent struggles we encounter in our work counseling kids and families on healthy eating is how to get kids to eat more vegetables. Whatever nutrition beliefs you may subscribe to—low-fat, low-carb, high-carb, etc.—everyone agrees that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is a good idea. They are packed with vital vitamins, minerals, fiber, and many other healthful ingredients that often have remarkable long-term health benefits.

Phytochemicals, a diverse class of compounds found in many vegetables, are believed to be associated with the prevention of several of the leading causes of death in the U.S., including diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. If you can develop the habits of eating fruits and vegetables regularly in your kids while they are young, they will reap lifelong rewards.

Easier said than done. It’s a rare kid that would rather eat a plate of steamed asparagus than a heaping bowl of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs (Calvin’s favorite cereal). Why is this? Don’t they know what’s good for them? In fact, there are many good reasons why cauliflower floret may seem about as appealing to your child as a trip to the dentist:

Need for independence

In the first three to four years of life, children are taking their first, cautious steps towards developing a sense of their own identity and independence. While they still feel a deep need for security and unconditional love, they also need to begin to assert their own wills and carve out some territory for themselves. But this is awfully difficult for three-year-olds, given their almost complete dependence on the adults around them. One of the few areas on which they can exert any influence is what foods are allowed to enter their mouths. And which foods are imposed upon them at the dinner table with the greatest vigor and most impassioned pleas? Spinach. Broccoli. Steamed carrots. Peas. If you are an independent-minded, progressive three-year old with a mind of your own, are you likely to get excited about these things? I don’t think so.

They might not taste very good

The taste buds of children are much more sensitive than those of an adult. As a consequence, the strong (and for a child, foreign), flavors of vegetables can taste particularly bitter. This problem is compounded by the fact that many flavors are new to children when they are young, and it can take five or ten experiences of a new taste to acclimate the taste buds to it.

Poor marketing

When was the last time you saw a television commercial (or any advertisement, for that matter) designed to get your kids to eat more fruits and vegetables? Wouldn’t it be surprising to see Britney Spears singing an adapted rendition of one of her hit songs espousing the virtues of sugar snap peas instead of Pepsi? Or Shaquille O’Neal hawking baby carrots dipped in hummus instead of Whoppers? Kids are subjected to a daily barrage of marketing tactics from clever marketers convincing them that certain foods are cool, hip, tasty, fun, etc., often communicated by sports stars and other celebrities. These foods do not often include vegetables (with the exception of french fries, the most commonly consumed form of vegetable in the United States).

In response, the government does spend money on advertising to advocate healthy eating, but a recent analysis showed that the entire yearly U.S. budget for such advertising is less than the marketing budget for Altoids mints. No wonder a Dorito seems more exciting than a Brussels sprout.

Lower availability and convenience

Eating vegetables requires effort. First you have to find them. Then they must be cleaned, peeled, cut, and often cooked. You don’t typically find them in convenience stores, vending machines, or mini-marts. They are not typically packaged in snack-sized packages, or in roll-up form (like so-called “fruit” roll-ups). By contrast, candy, chips, and soda are ubiquitous in our society, immediately available, ready-to-eat, and portable.

So, with these formidable forces arrayed against you in the timeless struggle to get kids to eat their veggies, what can you do about it? In fact, I have seen many parents win this battle by adopting some simple, practical tactics:

1. Find ways to put the kids in charge of their vegetables. Involve them in the process of choosing, shopping for, and preparing the vegetables. Kids are much more likely to feel good about eating veggies if they think it is their idea. If you can avoid it, don’t force vegetables on your kids. It is often a good idea to have them available on the dinner table on a plate at the center of the table, where family members can help themselves, rather than served on individual plates. This way your child can help himself/herself and also mirror the behavior of adults who are helping themselves.


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