Originally published in Wisconsin State Journal on November 22, 2012.
Dear Dr. Johnson: Why is it that so many children don’t like to eat vegetables? Is it a phase, due to developing taste buds or something?
Dear Reader: When it comes to greatest parental concerns, I would put lack of vegetables in a child’s diet high on the list. With the obesity epidemic in the United States, this is a very important topic.
Approximately half of our food intake should be fruits and vegetables. Our taste buds naturally prefer things that are sweet or salty. Because vegetables are neither of these, they aren’t a natural preference.
Childhood, especially the toddler years, is the time for developing food preferences that can last a lifetime. So this is the time when vegetables should be readily available and encouraged.
My motto for parents is: “You choose what food goes in front of your child; your child chooses what they eat.” I recommend that parents offer a variety of healthy foods at each meal. A small amount of each should be put on the child’s plate.
For those age 2 and older with whom you can negotiate, if they want more of something, they need to try a bite of the other food or foods. This puts the choice into the child’s hands.
Foods should not be left off a child’s plate or, worse yet, left off the table because a child has refused to eat them in the past. It can take more than a dozen times of being exposed to a food for a child to try it, and a child’s taste preferences can be a moving target.
I strongly encourage parents not to become short-order cooks, making different foods for each family member. Make one meal and let children know that is what’s available to eat. There aren’t other options. If a child learns that anytime they don’t like the food on the table they can get what they like, the child’s diet will become more and more narrow.
In my experience, the more a parent pushes a child to eat something, the more the child will refuse. If you act like you don’t care but simply let them know they won’t get seconds of favorites or other options, many children will choose to take a bite. They might even take more than one.
One trick is to allow a child to dip vegetables or sprinkle them with cheese. For some 2-year-olds, ketchup is its own food group and goes with everything. While not ideal, I don’t discourage it if a child will then try vegetables (even if he or she just licks off the ketchup).
One ingenious idea another family taught me was to prepare pureed vegetables as the dip so the children dipped vegetables in vegetables. It is OK to hide vegetables to make sure your child is getting the nutrients from them. However, a child should still be offered the vegetables whole. As an adult, they won’t have you around to hide pureed peas in spaghetti sauce or spinach in brownies.
Remember that even for small children, actions speak louder than words. Your child wants to do what you are doing and eat what you are eating. Your example of eating vegetables is the best way to encourage your child to eat them as well.
For further recommendations on encouraging healthy eating in children, I suggest the American Academy of Pediatrics’ book “Food Fights.”