How to Get Your Kids (and adults) to Eat Vegetables
News flash – vegetables are good for you. Yet many Americans eat little to no vegetables. Even people that like vegetables often tell me they only get 2 to 3 per day. This article is not about scolding you about your lack of vegetable consumption. But lets be realistic and admit that if our kids don’t see us eating vegetables then they sure aren’t going to develop the habit of consuming the most nutritious food on the planet on their own. Lets spend a couple of minutes understanding the problem and then discuss easy solutions.
Allow me to simply say this about that:
- No one has ever sat in my office and said “I eat 6 vegetables a day and have a weight problem”
- Most cancer patients I see do not eat vegetables and the sickest cancer patients I treat had a history of eating NO vegetables.
- Pound for pound the highest density of antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals come from vegetables. Period.
- Thousands of clinical, scientific, medically based studies show repeated evidence that those who consume the highest amounts of vegetables have the lowest occurrence rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimers, and ALL degenerative diseases. This includes ADD & ADHD.
So why do we struggle with eating vegetables? A couple of ideas come to mind. First of all no one is spending any time or money to “teach” you about the virtues of vegetables and their key role in your health. Our own government only spends 10 million dollars a year promoting healthy diet messages while McDonalds spends 10 million dollars per DAY advertising how wonderful their products are. Gee, I wonder which message we are most likely to hear.
Go to any tribe of people in the far reaches of the undeveloped world and observe that they eat whole natural foods all day every day. Now offer them sugar. I’ll bet you a box of donuts they will love this new food called sugar and take to it wildly. Anyone offered refined sugar or processed foods that are chemically engineered to stimulate the brains pleasure centers will agree that those things are tasty. So now if little Johnny is offered “kid food” which is code for sugar and processed crap, it’s no wonder that he will take to it immediately and refuse to eat whole natural foods.
We are doing this to ourselves. He give our kids crack cocaine in the form of sugar and when they go nuts and demand more crack we simple step back and say, “Gee, I cant get him to eat vegetables”. Johnny is 4 years old and he will eat whatever we provide. Unless Johnny has a car and a bank account then we are still in charge. And if you think this dynamic will get easier when he is 14 years old then you truly are on crack.
As a parent it is my job to teach my son right from wrong, teach him how to survive in this world and teach him how to stay away form dangerous situations. If I can’t effectively teach him to eat proper food then I have not done my job as a parent to help him avoid dangerous situations like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Vegetables prevent high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Sugar causes high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. I love my son and don’t want him to struggle with these preventable issues.
So how can we get young Johnny (and even 42 year old Janet) to enjoy the vegetable experience? Well there are three elements to eating any new food. The taste, the smell and the texture. As we introduce new foods we need to allow time for an inexperienced palate to adapt to these new sensations. Most infants receive baby food from a jar somewhere in that first year. The standard baby food came all mushed up so that carrots and peas and other vegetables all had the same consistency or texture. So your infants experience with these real vegetables after his first birthday is a bit different from the jar food he has grown accustomed to.
The smells of these foods are also different in their natural forms. Baby food is processed and much of the original aroma has been lost as freshness was lost. As we go to introduce these foods in their natural form they have a pungent aroma. We need to allow our kids time to get used to and develop a love for that aroma. The same goes for taste.
Think about this – did you ever feed your baby “Goldfish crackers” all smooshed up in a jar? No, of course not. How about Gerbers “Snickers bar Surprise”? Not likely. In fact the very idea seems ludicrous. Why would I feed sugar to a baby. But suddenly when they turn one year old, all bets are off and the landslide begins. Why? Because I love my child and I want to give him “the good stuff”. We need to seriously redefine what “the good stuff” is and find other healthier ways to share love beyond the indulgence of sugar.
So how can we accomplish this? I offer you the following strategy:
Never make the introduction of any new food a “confrontation”. No one likes an argument (except lawyers and they’re just weird) so approach the introduction of a new food as a joyous experience rather than “You are going to eat this or else”. In our house we always reminded our kids that Mom and I love spinach because it makes us strong and smart. We always attached a specific benefit or quality that each vegetable had. Just make it up as you go. “Peas help your muscles grow so you will strong like Daddy” and “this bok choy makes you brain smarter so you can read better and get good grades in school”. Whatever your kid has a passion for is fuel for your stories. If he is into sports then that is an easy one. But even if “Barbies” are all the rage in your house then attach meaning to Barbie. Barbie always eats her vegetables so she has energy to wax her pink car. Barbie eats her vegetables so she can keep Skipper away from her man Ken. But I digress . . . Just keep attaching strong emotionally uplifting messages to the consumption of vegetables. So Rule# 1: Keep it positive.
Rule# 2: don’t make the “amount” of new vegetable a deal breaker. The last thing your child wants to see is a big mound of something new. But 2 tiny itsy bitsy little samples won’t look so threatening. When introducing a new vegetable we always served up two tiny little bites. For example if the new vegetable was peas, we would put two lonely little peas on the plate and make the simple request that they simply had to chew it. If it was spinach then it was two tiny little dollops no bigger than half the size of the end of your pinky finger. Broccoli was two little flowerets without the stem. Kids hate stems.
Which leads us to Rule #3: give them an escape route so they don’t feel trapped. We asked our kids to simply put the new vegetable into their mouth and chewed it but if they didn’t like it then it was OK to spit it out into a napkin. This allowed them to try it and from our side of the equation they had a chance to get used to the taste, the texture and the smell. If they spit it out we told them how proud of them we were for simply ”trying it”. “Trying it” is the behavior we want to promote because we know that if we can get them to remain open to trying new things that it is just a matter of time before they convert to tolerating it and eventually liking it.
That spinach is going to reappear every few days or once per week and by the 6th or 7th or 8th try they will actually swallow it. Ta-da . . . We would again reinforce how proud we were but not make too much of a fuss as we wanted them to see that this was a natural occurrence and actually expected of them. It’s not the most amazing thing they have ever done, it’s just normal. Again, keep it upbeat and positive. Everyone is winning here.
If you were to ask my son he would say, “I’ll eat any vegetable you put before me but I don’t like them all.” I’m fine with that. Given time he will come to love them all in his own way. And he will love me for giving the gift of good nutrition that fuels him for the rest of his life.
P.S. One last note. If ketchup or any other “coating” makes this easier then go for it. My daughter would eat anything I asked if only she was allowed to cover it with ketchup. She’s 12 now and the vegetables remain present while her need for ketchup has evaporated. It’s a journey.
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