Monday, February 23, 2009

Getting kids to eat vegetables and other healthy foods

People tell me that I'm lucky that my 3-year-old son eats vegetables. (Well, not all veggies, but most.) I think it's more than luck; I use a few techniques that I think work really well. Here are my top ten success secrets.

1. Make it fun. See this photo? Ben loves letters and numbers, and he was thoroughly delighted with the 10 carrots and the "10" written in vegan Ranch. And don't do this ONLY for the picky ones -- Ben would have eaten these carrots regardless, but making it fun reinforces positive associations with healthy foods. Some other ideas: a smiley face on oatmeal with raisins and nuts; sandwiches cut with a cookie cutter; anything that contains their name (ever try to write your child's name with string beans?), a flower out of apple slices... really the possibilities are endless. Once I sliced a banana into coins and arranged them around a plate with a big strawberry in the middle. It didn't represent anything but it was fun to eat!

2. Try not to engage in a power struggle. I have never, ever forced Ben to eat anything. But he knows I love it when he tries new things and enjoys his food. So every once in a while he's in a surly mood and declares, "I'm NOT going to eat this" in attempt to get a rise out of me, and I say, "OK!" with a big smile. Nine times out of ten, he eats it a few minutes later, because he realizes I really don't care if he eats or not (well, I DO, but he does not know that!). Because I am a dietitian, parents are often surprised to see how I handle mealtime issues. For example, when Ben takes one bite and tells me he is no longer hungry, I excuse him and that's that. The kid knows he's full; who am I to force him to overeat? Children are born with an acute sense of satiety. We need to nurture that instinct, not destroy it by forcing them to eat "three more bites" when they're not hungry. (Obviously, this goes for healthy children of normal weight; children with growth or weight or serious food issues need special care.) Every now and then, 10 minutes after the meal is over, there will be a request for food, and the answer is NO -- mealtime is over. After 2 or 3 of these episodes, children learn that you mean business. And if they go hungry for an hour or two before the next meal or snack, it's ok; they won't whittle away to nothing. Because of this approach, there is no stress or anxiety associated with our mealtimes, and they are usually quite peaceful.

3. Resist the temptation to reinforce the notion that vegetables taste bad but they have to be eaten. As hard as it is, try to treat all food relatively the same (except of course for special occasional treats like candy). That way, if you put all healthy foods in front of your child, they will pick and choose based on color, flavor, texture, and desire for variety -- not what is "good" or "bad."

4. Never use food as a reward. There are books written about this, but I'll try to sum it up with three points: one, using food as a reward ties behavior in with foods, which might lead kids to all sorts of parental manipulation using food. Two, if reward foods are a special kind of food, then non-reward food might feel like a punishment. Three, if reward foods are associated with parental pride and acceptance, then those foods might be later abused as a way for the child to feel accepted and loved.

5. If your child declares s/he does not like something, do not make a big deal out of it. For example, when I first gave Ben almond butter, he turned his nose up at it. I said, "Thank you for trying it." About 3 months later, he saw me eating almond butter on a cracker, and he asked to taste it. I gave it to him and he LOVED it! I didn't remind him that he didn't like it before, and now almond butter is a regular part of his diet (which thrills me, since he's allergic to most nuts). Another example: Ben used to love raw peppers, then for a while refused to touch them, and the other day he put away almost an entire red pepper cut into strips. I never said a word about it. I think if you "call" kids on their former likes or dislikes, they feel threatened or embarrassed or have hurt pride, and will continue to refuse food. Once we recongize that kids' food preferences change like the weather, we accept their "pickiness" as normal.

6. Once you find a veggie your child likes, go out of your way to prepare it. I discovered Ben's affinity for raw cabbage when he tried a piece of pickled cabbage at Veggie Heaven, our local vegetarian Chinese restaurant. So the next week I made him vegan cole slaw (I call it "cabbage salad") and he is addicted to the stuff. I use different dressing combinations, and I vary the veggies (I have mixed shredded cabbage with broccoli slaw, carrot slaw, and other shredded veggies, even very finely shredded raw kale.) You would not believe the portions of cabbage this kid puts away.

7. From as early as possible, make mixed dishes. Ben fully expects pasta, rice, tofu dishes, soups, stir fries, and even sandwiches to contain bits of vegetables. We don't usually have a blob of vegetables as a side dish; they're often incorporated into the main dish. I think this shapes the way kids think about food; they don't see vegetables as a pile of evil; they see them as a normal part of the meal at large. In addition, the veggies used in a main dish will be seasoned well, which is welcomed because oftentimes the flavor of plain vegetables is too bitter. I, myself, don't like plain steamed cauliflower, but I'll eat it in a curry. I do the same for my family.

8. Keep healthy snacks visible and accessible. When hunger strikes, Ben knows he can reach into the fruit bowl and always find something fresh, sweet, and delicious. Or he can open the fridge and see, at his eye level, containers of cut up veggies, cut up fruits, soy yogurt, almond butter, etc. What he sees is what he wants. (By the same token, if you don't want your child to ask for junk, then don't have junk in the house. They can't argue with, "We don't have any.")

9. Don't encourage a sweet or salty tooth. There is no reason for toddlers, or older children, to eat surgary cereal, sweetened oatmeal, or salted chips. Salt belongs in savory foods, and sugar belongs in desserts and sweets. Once a child gets used to overly sweet or overly salty foods (which are perfectly acceptable in their natural state), they will begin to reject the plain versions. And of course, it's less than ideal to overindulge in sugar and salt.

10. Relax. I think this is the most important thing. Food is not supposed to be a weapon or threat or reward or punishment. Provide delicious, natural foods to your family every day and they will thank you with big smiles... and optimal health.

6 comments:

EL said...

This was an excellent post and just the advice i needed! My son is 9 months old and just now starting solids. I want to be sure he eats a healthy diet full of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes but definitely don't want a struggle at meal time. i want it to be fun:) I wasn't sure how to handle meal time - should i make him eat something, a few bites, not at all, etc? But with your tips here, I feel much more confident for the road ahead! many thanks!! Quick question - I am vegan but my husband is not so this is a potential problem within itself. My husband agrees our son can be vegetarian and possibly vegan but how will i manage when he wants what daddy is eating? any thoughts are welcomed. Thank you!

MartyDaveyRD said...

Dina,

Again you have written a brilliant, succinct article on being a mom. Having been one for 10 years, I still learn from you.

Great Job!

Marty Davey, RD, MS
http://martydavey.com

ashaan said...

Thank you for this wonderful and helpful post. I was searching for answers to my 5 year old's resistance to food. Got some great insights here. Thanks again!

Sumiko said...

This is an awesome article! I know I'm reading it over a year after you posted it, but I'll definitely be adopting these ideas in feeding my vegetarian son (22 mos) who hardly touches his vegetables. Thank you!

vegan_mom48 said...

I know I am just now reading this and responding. I have been a vegetarian for a while, but have only recently adopted the vegan lifestyle. My husband and my son are also vegan. I was hoping to get some advice on good and healthy snack food that he would like. He does eat some raw veggies with dip, but i was wondering about other healthy choices. Any advice would be great!! Thank you!

Rachel Page said...

I loved this article - so practical! Thank you!