By Dave Paltin, PhD
It’s a parenting dilemma struggled with for generations, or at least since the first blob of mustard greens or lentil loaf was spooned out onto a toddler’s plate: how to get them to eat their vegetables.
Before going into the cute ideas that might help, like carving radishes to look like a head of each member of the family, let’s take a look at what science has found out about the problem. You didn’t think scientists haven’t been paying attention have you, after all, there are quite a few scientists that are mothers as well. A recent study conducted by Mildred Horodynski, a researcher with a Ph.D. in nursing, set out to uncover the factors in families that had a strong impact on child vegetable eating. Looking at families that were at risk for lower veggie intake overall, two influence at the dinner table emerged. The first, of course, was role modeling. The researcher found that children whose mother ate fruits and vegetables as a bigger part of their own diet also had kids that ate more fruits and vegetables. Surprising? Not really when you think that what mom likes might show up on the table more often, and that kids do pay attention to whether or not we have eaten our carrots just like we have been paying attention to them.
The second finding of the study was that mothers who tended to view their children as “picky eaters” tended to have children who ate fewer fruits and vegetables. “But wait a minute,” you may say to yourself at the dinner table as you watch your own child sheepishly slip a spoonful of peas into his jacket pocket, “couldn’t it be that those children really were picky eaters and that the mothers were just stating the facts?” What the research suggests is that mothers who have this view may be less likely to be pushy about the greens, or may tend to give up on the creative solutions more quickly. And knowing how most kids unconsciously like to get praise from their parents (even when they pretend not to care), describing a child repeatedly as a “picky eater” probably has an influence over how the child sees the situation.
“But he really is a picky eater,” you say to yourself back at the table as another spoonful of peas find their way under a half-eaten pork chop. So how long should you push to get your child to eat vegetables and fruits. Previous research studies have suggested that it may take up to 15 exposures before a child will get used to a particular vegetable. That may seem like a lot, but really, if the same vegetable were served every other day, this translates into one month. Fifteen isn’t a magic number, it’s just the average, and tells us that parents who give up after just a few tries and begin saying out loud, “he just doesn’t like broccoli” won’t reach the goal. Of course, any blog post on getting children to eat vegetables wouldn’t be complete without suggestions, and so here are a few provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture itself, and a few other sources:
-- Let children pick out a vegetable for the family at the market and let them have a hand in preparing it at home.
-- Even better, have your child grow some vegetables in the garden. This is probably the number one way to encourage a “green tongue.”
-- Provide vegetables and fruits as “easy access” snack choices after school by putting them in your child’s hands.
-- Keep your temper in check. Do you adapt well to a situation when you are stressed? Don’t increase your child’s stress by arguing, and remember that the veggie war is won through exposure over several meals, not just a single meal.
-- Use positive approaches like praise, or a “greenie award” for family members that eat their vegetables and fruits.
-- Yes, it does count if you put vegetables on the pizza and your child picks them off. Try to put a veggie or two into other foods that allow for it.
-- If you really have to use the ages-old threat of “no desert,” make sure you actually follow through for the rest of the night.
-- Make your veggies even “grosser,” with natural food coloring, or other flavors, then have a “dare contest” to see who will eat the biggest bite. Sometimes reverse psychology really does work.