We encourage our kids to dislike vegetables with:
Cajoling. “Vegetables are so good for you, eat them up they’ll make you grow healthy and strong.”
Bribing. “Eat two more pieces of broccoli, then you can have dessert.”
Threats. “You aren’t leaving the table until you’ve finished your carrots!”
Kids aren’t fooled by any of it. As a child if you have to cajole me, bribe me or threaten me then that food is gotta be yuck!!
Children are all about the taste and feel and most importantly what is familiar. External rewards and threats aren’t effective. Studies show that children eat less and behave worse at mealtimes when external rewards are used. Children want to learn and grow. They want to be us. Even older children and teenagers, even though it doesn’t feel like it much of the time. They are observing all the time and copying what we do. It is important to remember that it takes time for them to feel comfortable with a new food and to include it into their repertoire of familiar foods.
We as parents are so focused on the short term goal of getting those vegetables into our children that we lose sight of the long term goal which is to teach them how to be competent eaters.
When children are about 2 years old they become more aware of their surroundings, they are learning about their own sense of autonomy. They are learning that they are their own person with their own opinions. It is also a time when children may become labelled as a fussy eater. Because they are more aware now of what their food tastes and feels like, it becomes new again. Even though you may have served the same food every week since starting solids it is suddenly refused. It has become new again. So frustrating! But those are our feelings to deal with. Children need time and repeated exposure again to learn what their food tastes and feels like; to feel familiar with it again. Pressure doesn’t work. Whether it be positive or negative it leads to resistance.
On the other side we have the foods that are actively limited. They may not be allowed in the house, they may be stored high up in the cupboard, they may be mum and dad’s secret stash only to be bought out once the kids are in bed, only available at parties or used to reward. For a child, just as it is for us adults this becomes the good stuff, this is the food that has to taste the best otherwise why would it be such a big deal. We always want what we can’t have or get enough of.
This is why dessert is served at the same time as the main meal in my house, not after. This is why all the food is served into the middle of the table and everyone chooses what they want to eat and how much. This is why I don’t make comment on the food at all. I let my 4 and 8 year old make their own choices.
My job happens before we get to the table. I choose what is going to be served, I choose where and when it will be served.
I prepare meals in a way that considers everyone’s food preferences but without preparing a separate meals. It might mean that some of the vegetables are put aside to serve raw, it might mean that the pasta is served separately to the meat and vegetables. It might mean that the salad is served as separate components on a platter rather than all mixed together in a bowl.
Once the meal is prepared I take it to the table. On the table there is also bread and if we are having dessert that will be there too or perhaps some fruit.
We sit down as a family and choose what and how much we each want to eat. I eat my dinner and talk to my children about their day and other random child conversations. I do not comment on their food.
Meal times consist of food that I like to eat and that consider my children’s preferences. They know not to complain about what is served but they also know that they can come to the table feeling comfortable that there will be at least one thing served that they will usually eat.
This provides them with exposure to different foods and cooking methods. It provides them with the opportunity to try different things when they are ready. It allows them to eat enough of what they want. It takes away the status of the forbidden foods.
Children want to be like us. If we provide the structure and the opportunity children will learn to eat a wide variety of foods, including vegetables. They are in the business of growing. If they are allowed to grow and understand their body’s demands and needs they will continue to respond to those needs and eat in a way that is positive, comfortable and flexible. They won’t be fixated on the forbidden foods or horrified at the thought of vegetables. Their bodies will grow in a way that is right for them and become adults who are competent eaters.
If you would like to learn more about feeding our children visit http://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/ for more information or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a free 15 minute phone consultation to discuss your particular situation.