Even when taking the day off from her job as a nutritionist and a dietitian, Tamara Duker Freuman can’t wholly escape it — not when taking her twin toddlers to the playground means sharing stories and experiences with other parents. And not when, before long, everyone inevitably moves onto the topic of picky eaters. Specifically, the age-old trouble everyone seems to be having is getting their kids to eat and enjoy vegetables.
It’s hard not to sympathize, especially since an aversion to veggies is such a common problem for parents with toddlers. Freuman herself describes the difficulties she’s encountered getting her children to eat vegetables, frequently going weeks when either one or both refused to consume them outright. But her experience shouldn’t serve to discourage parents who want to inculcate a love for healthy eating in their kids. Instead, they should realize that while they can’t force children to embrace broccoli and abandon sweets, there are certain steps parents can take to help kids grow up to enjoy a healthy relationship with all things green.
The first step closely mirrors the words of the serenity prayer. The minute parents understand that their role isn’t to stuff veggies down protesting kids’ throats, the problem becomes much more solvable. Instead of laying down the law like the infamous, and very frustrating “eat this or you can’t leave the table,” fiat, parents should make sure that children always have a variety of healthy choices during mealtime, vegetables included, then step aside and allow them to make their own decisions. The more detached a parent can be from the children’s decisions about food, the better off everyone will be in the long run.
No pressure, no commentary (however benign), no bribery, no cajoling, period. The trick—and challenge—is to remain visibly agnostic and emotionally uninvested in what they put in their mouths. Kids can smell a veggie agenda a mile away, and to paraphrase Satter, if you have to force them to eat it, how good will they think it really is? If you’ve gotten to the point where you’re sneaking pureed spinach into their brownies, you’re officially focusing too much on getting veggies “into them” rather than fostering a lifelong habit of eating vegetables. Step. Away. From. The. Blender.
If the concern is that without vegetables, kids aren’t getting the nutrients they need, then parents must make adjustments to make sure that these vitamins and nutrients are available for consumption via some other means. If kids turn their noses on Vitamin-A rich foods like carrots and spinach, for example, alternatives such as dried mango or sweet potato fries might do the trick.
If she won’t go near Vitamin C-rich veggies like broccoli or red peppers, foods like strawberries, kiwi, and cantaloupe can deliver the goods. If folate-rich veggies like leafy greens, asparagus, or beets aren’t your child’s cup of tea, try including chickpeas, papaya, or oranges into the rotation. Also, keep in mind that young children have lower requirements for most vitamins than adults do, and that many cereals and bread products are heavily fortified with vitamins and minerals as well. As a result, children’s needs are generally being met with much smaller portions and a narrower diet than you probably realize.