Learn how to get kids to eat veggies without forcing them and disturbing their self-regulation.
Do you worry about your child’s health if they don’t eat enough vegetables?
Fruits and vegetables nourish your child, support their growth and development, and create healthy habits that last into adulthood.
So should you make kids eat vegetables?
Parents report using a variety of tricks to get kids to eat, or not eat. In the short term, it turns the dinner table into a battlefield, rather than the pleasant and nourishing space it’s supposed to be.
Forcing a child to eat their veggies can negatively affect kids’ self-regulation, relationship with food and even the food preferences they have as adults.
The Opposite Effect
Sarah learned this lesson the hard way. When Joey was three, he started refusing the foods he loved, especially vegetables. Sarah enticed him to eat with dessert and more of his favorite foods, which worked for a while. But then Joey got older and expected dessert after every meal, and wasn’t always good about eating his veggies.
Before long, Sarah and Joey were in a food battle every night, negotiating over which foods Joey would eat. Sometimes the battle escalated to punishment when Joey acted out or wasn’t fully cooperating.
Both Sarah and Joey felt bad about this. Sarah felt guilty and frustrated. Joey felt angry and ashamed. Over time, Joey became pickier, refused anything green, and was often sneaking sweets behind Sarah’s back.
All the bribing and discipline to get Joey to eat better was not working—in fact, it was having an opposite effect—Joey was not eating (or liking) vegetables, and he was increasingly drawn to sweets.
Studies show kids seek restricted foods and are more likely to reject foods they’re pressured to eat.
This is just one scenario, but it showcases some common challenges when parents try to get kids to eat.
Making Kids Eat Vegetables Messes with Self-Regulation
Yes, in fact, we know from research that the following negative tactics may do a number on kids’ abilities with eating:
- Pressure to eat more or try new foods is notorious for having an opposite effect than the one intended. In picky kids, pressure can lead to less eating (because pressure may physically turn off appetite) or in the kid who complies with parent requests, overeating.
- Rewarding or bribing with food may change a child’s outlook or mindset about food, leading them to favor the reward food (which is often dessert).
- Punishment or shaming may imprint a child’s mind with a negative association with food, eating and coming to the meal table. Research shows this negative association can last well into adulthood.
Getting Kids to Eat Vegetables is Not the Goal
When parents flex their ‘eat your veggies’ muscle and use all sorts of trickery to get kids to eat, kids may come up with their own battle response–avoiding veggies, faking pleasure (and hating it all the way down) or worse, refusing to eat the healthy stuff and sneaking the yummy stuff instead.
Why are kids not cooperating?
It’s simple: the goal is flawed.
Getting a child to eat vegetables (at all costs) is the wrong goal.
And, decades later, it may have the opposite effect. Jessica, a woman in her early 30’s asked for a meal plan but she had one thing she refused to eat: Vegetables. Her parents forced her to eat veggies as a kid, and now she refused to eat them.
That’s one story, but it’s an example of what forcing a kid to eat vegetables could look like when they’re an adult.
Yet, some parents believe that getting kids to eat, no matter what, is their job. And, somehow, some way, in doing so, it will lead to a happy, healthy, eat-everything-kid.
How to Get Kids to Eat Veggies without Messing Up Their Self-Regulation
Kids have different taste preferences. The appearance, taste and texture influence which vegetables your child likes. Some vegetables are more pleasing to kids than others.
In one study, the sensory characteristics of vegetables and the family’s eating environment played the biggest role in kids’ food preferences.
So how do you encourage healthy habits without interfering with kid’s self-regulation?
- Honor your child’s taste preferences
- Model eating vegetables in the family environment
- Don’t bribe kids with dessert if they eat their vegetables
- Present foods with neutrality, and not as “good” or “bad”
- Don’t force your child to finish eating
- Create a positive meal environment where it’s okay for your child to reject a food he doesn’t like respectfully
- Give choices at mealtime so your child can try new vegetables while they have an option of foods they like
Sometimes parents mess up their child’s natural ability to manage food intake without even realizing they are doing so. It’s almost never intentional, nor is it solely a parent’s fault or the parent’s doing.
It can be quite a complicated parent and child dynamic.
In the end, the goal is not to get kids to eat, rather it is to raise a child who is able to regulate his own appetite and eating, while having a healthy and positive outlook on nutrition.
If you’re having trouble with your child’s eating, try starting over and get back to basics.