MY Will Be Done: Part III... AKA, "Operation: Get My Kid To Eat Vegetables"
A few weeks ago I introduced a topic that it seems a lot of parents can relate to: how to manipulate your child's behavior in a healthy and productive way. My sister amiably scolded me for basically only setting the scene and then making you wait until Part II for the actual discussion. Sorry about that!
Well, today comes the meat and potatoes (and green beans) of what I find myself discussing with parents of toddlers (and big kids!) every single day in clinic.
Picking up where we left off, way back in 2011, my oldest son suddenly quit vegetables at the ripe old age of 15 months, and I wasn't having it. After numerous strategies, threats, negotiations, bribes, and Hail Maries had failed, my husband and I devised a plan. Without yet realizing it, the plan was founded upon the two principle tenets of behavior modification that I have observed to be most successful at home and work over the past several years: set an example, and offer praise and affirmation.
Step #1 of "Operation: Get the Toddler To Eat Vegetables" was to always eat them ourselves. Every lunch, and every dinner. We both like vegetables, so that's not a problem (except on okra nights, when my husband wants to cry). But we were, you know, busy exhausted sleep-deprived strung-out residents with a very modest food budget who didn't love to come home and cook every evening.
Trust me, I've heard all the excuses. Lack of time. Lack of knowledge. Lack of money. Lack of a stove. Food security issues are the hardest barriers to tackle, but even on food stamps, healthy eating can be done. Second hardest scenario, in my opinion, is an unsupportive spouse. A unified front is very important on this topic (and gosh, all of parenting), but I've also witnessed success stories where one parent boldly leads the way and the kids follow suit, despite the other parent's lack of agreement.
So, your first step needs to be stop making excuses, and start making vegetables.
Step #2: Eat the vegetables FIRST. This is crucial. Before we go any further, let's pause briefly for a caveat... the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends placing age-appropriate portions of a variety of healthy foods in front of your child, forcing none of it, but offering no alternatives if the food is rejected. They also recommend NOT making one meal for the grownups and a separate one for the offspring. Common sense suggests the same thing.
Think about it for a second. What message are you sending if you deprive little Johnny of the opportunity to try the brussel sprouts? Well, Johnny heard the message loud and clear: "Mommy and Daddy do not think these green things are necessary for my health and happiness." And he'll be eager to remind you of this next time you place an unfamiliar green thing on his plate. Then he'll throw it on the floor.
Same principle applies if Susie notices that her chicken is always breaded and shaped like a dinosaur. It won't be too surprising when she rejects meat that looks like an actual chicken, attached to an actual bone, will it? If kids observe that their parents are willing to lower expectations, they have numerous tricks up their tiny little sleeves to make sure you keep those expectations lowered according to their will. And Susie will join the ranks of millions of other kids who count nuggets as their only source of protein (well, besides sugar-infused peanut paste, that is).
So why do I suggest putting veggies on the plate first? Because, incentive. And, natural consequences.
One more very important caveat. There are children with actual medical problems that limit food volumes and variety for very legitimate reasons. I am not talking to the parents of these children. Everything from food allergies to severe GERD to sensory issues to autism needs to be approached on a case-by-case basis, with careful attention to safety and promoting a positive relationship with food. Your pediatrician, occupational therapist, and feeding therapist can all be helpful in these cases.
Back to The Rest of The Plan. Here is what we do with our own children, starting around 15 months (Kid #4, the countdown is on!):
1. You are served vegetables twice a day, every day.
2. Veggies arrive on your plate first, along with EVERYBODY else in the family, grownups and guests included. (Remember? Set an example. This plan does not discriminate against children. Everybody has the same rules. Even Papa on okra night.)
3. If you do not want to eat your vegetables, no problem. You are not punished. You are not bribed. You are not coerced. A spoon is not shoved in your mouth against your will. Mom and dad do not get irritated or at all concerned about what you choose.
4. There will be no other food offered to you.
5. Everybody else gets portions of the rest of the meal, which are sitting in the middle of the table, looking and smelling delicious.
6. You may continue drinking water, and you will remain at the table to continue enjoying family time until the conclusion of the meal.
7. The rest of the evening progresses as usual. No snacks before bedtime.
8. You wake up the next morning, hungry for breakfast. What's for breakfast, you say?
What's that? Asparagus doesn't sound good for breakfast? No problem, you do not have to eat it. You may drink water. But you don't get anything else.
9. Hopefully asparagus sounds better for lunch, because I think I hear your tummy growling.
10. The game ends when the vegetables are gone. However long it takes.
Yes, this is the famous "Eat or Starve" approach, with a seemingly cruel twist. Lots of people swear by it. Plenty of people hate it, including the author of this article on Scary Mommy, which I saw circulating on social media this week. The lady has some valid points, especially about medical diagnoses complicating the picture. I disagree, however, with her assertion that toddler food pickiness is normal, therefore it should be tolerated. Tantrums are normal in toddlers too... should those be accommodated? (Unhelpful hint: the tantrum stops if you give the kid what he/she wants.) No! Tantrums should be handled in a similarly calm, premeditated, consistent manner. 183 times a day, if necessary. A post for another day.
So what happens if your kid actually eats the fibrous plant matter in front of them? Remember our second tenet?! Jubilation ensues! Victory dance. Shouts of praise. High fives. Standing ovations. Repeated affirmation. Calling grandma and grandpa to brag. Telling strangers on the street. (Okay, maybe not that far.) But seriously, let your kid know how proud you are. The good news is, if you've dealt with years of food rejection, this celebration won't be an act; you will legitimately feel this joyful. Even if your child is pre-verbal, he/she will readily understand the enthusiasm in your behavior. And they will want to see it and hear it over and over again.
Our children are born craving our approval. At almost all ages, but especially under 7 years, children are vastly more motivated to make good choices in a desire to receive praise, rather than hesitant to avoid bad choices out of a fear of repercussions. Use this to your advantage!
Some people ask me why I care so much about vegetables. Admittedly, only a small part of it is related to nutrition, though these benefits should not be ignored. Vegetables are wonderful because they are low in sugar and high in micronutrients. And filling up on vegetables means there's less room for eating garbage. And, fiber is fabulous.... constipation is no laughing matter when it lands you in the emergency room, which happens far more often than you'd think. Sure, juice will clear the pipes too, but who thinks giving youngsters 2 full tablespoons of pure sugar in 8 oz of apple juice is a good idea? And that's the unsweetened kind. (It's not a secret: I despise juice.)
Ignoring the health benefits, most of my rationale for making vegetables mandatory in our household is that twice a day, every single day, face to face, I get to help my kids learn to control their behavior. And personally, I think the Entitlement Generation could use a lesson or two in choosing long-term gain over short-term comfort. So parents, I implore you, if there is one thing you teach your child, it is this:
Sometimes in life, you have to do things, not because it's easy, or fun, or feels good, or you want to. You do it because it's right, it's good for you, and because a grownup told you so.
They need to learn this some day, and honestly, it's easier when they're young.
So what do you do if the closest your 12-year-old gets to a vegetable is french fries and ketchup? Well, it's a bit harder to be honest. I'd start with a conversation, and not when you're already sitting at the dinner table. Discuss your goals, and your reasoning. As irrational as tweens and teens can be, they will surely still demand a "rational" explanation from you. Figure out how to get them to buy in. Start with very small portions of "more palatable" vegetables, to set them up for success while also not compromising on the new rule. It will be very important to not let emotions escalate if the kid is resistant. Remain calm, confident, and utterly unwavering.
On that note, at any age, what are the two best ways to teach children that "I'm the boss" is actually quite negotiable? 1. To go back on your word, and 2. to set inconsistent expectations.
So, do not implement this mealtime approach until you've thought about it quite a bit, you've discussed it with all adults that will be feeding your child inside your home (obviously this can not and should not be carried over to daycare), and you've decided that you want to make the change and never turn back.
Lastly, what does this look like in practice? Well, after 5 years of this, it looks like 3 young boys scarfing down their vegetables, then piling the rest of dinner onto their plates. Then often asking for seconds or thirds (of vegetables first, naturally). Kid #2 doesn't like soup, for whatever reason. So maybe once or twice a month, he finishes it for breakfast. He doesn't love it at 7:30 am, but he doesn't complain, because he knows griping about it won't change the reality. So he eats the soup, then eats breakfast, and continues on his merry way. The worst we've ever had was at age 3, when he took several bites of soup at dinner-breakfast-lunch-dinner before the bowl was gone, but he did it. For a pre-training glimpse, Kid #4 (14 months) takes a few bites of most things placed in front of her, preferentially consumes her favorites, then grins and giggles as she throws the rest on the floor. Your turn is coming, sweetheart.
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So that's the plan. I welcome your feedback, questions, praise, awe, and expressions of disbelief or horror. I challenge you to think about what parenting ruts you find yourself in, and how employing some of these tactics (in a variety of scenarios) might make daily life more positive for everyone in the household. Would love to hear about some success stories too, so share away!