The toddler years are a formative period for any kid. Not only is the convenience of a diaper on the way out (it was fun while it lasted), but many of his or her dietary preferences are beginning to harden. So it’s important parents navigate the fussy waters with a plan if they’re ever going to introduce vegetables into their children’s lives.
Bribing kids with promises of dessert or extra TV time will only make the good stuff seem yuckier. Parents can do better. And if there’s one thing adults do best — or at least enjoy the most — it’s exploiting their children’s psychological immaturity. Here are seven ways to get kids to eat their veggies without them throwing a fit. Who knows, maybe they’ll even start to like them.
1. Give Them Less
Put half a plate of mac and cheese in front of a kid, with only a couple florets of broccoli on the side, and that broccoli will sit there until the end of time. Put half the portion of mac and cheese on the plate and double the amount of broccoli, and suddenly the child has the appetite for broccoli. In 2012, researchers arrived at this intuitive, if seldom followed conclusion: When kids run out of one satisfying food, they’d prefer to feel full on vegetables than go hungry.
So give them less — unhealthy food, that is. Give them all the vegetables you want.
2. X-Ray Vision Carrots
It’s all in the branding. Vegetables need to be sold to kids, whose sugar-loving palates find robust tomatoes and savory zucchini unappealing. So make food fun. A 2012 study found the same forces that seduce adults in restaurants actually work on kids, too. Ordinary carrots become “X-ray carrots.” Boring squash transforms into “Superhero squash.” Researchers found a simple rebranding could up veggie intake from 32 percent to 66 percent.
3. Don’t Explain Anything
It’s tempting to sell vegetables as healthy. But kids are invincible, so vitality is irrelevant. They care about taste and not being hungry. A study released earlier this July found the easiest way to get kids to eat their vegetables is simply not to explain they’re vegetables. Don’t mention they’re “good for you” or “nutritious.” The logic is actually kind of brilliant. If parents don’t treat one food as special, kids won’t grow up seeing it as alien.
(Granted, if you’re treating veggies like every other food, they should at least be palatable. It doesn’t take a 5-year-old very long to realize those boiled green things are gross.)
4. Taste The Rainbow
Would you like beets or carrots? Peas or Cucumbers? Corn or cauliflower?
A raft of psychological research has shown people respond positively to choices between items, rather than choices between decisions. Kids are no exception. Instead of asking them which vegetable they’d like to eat, make the decision for them. But offer some control in picking between limited options. Basically, set the agenda.
A 2013 study found offering a rainbow of choices, and doing so frequently, increased the chance kids would settle into a “favorite,” even if that favorite was merely the vegetable they could tolerate the best.
5. The 'One Bite' Rule
Developing a habit begins with the first try. Tell kids to give you “just one bite.” While the first sensation may be less than pleasant, reinforcing the habit each time dinner rolls around engrains the vegetable as a staple. Use the one bite rule as an easy point of entry. But be firm, researchers say. Each bite is critical for staying consistent, so make sure the child knows the deal is non-negotiable.
A disclaimer: The one bite rule is not the “one bite and you can have dessert” rule. If kids are ever to develop healthy relationships with veggies, they must eat them for their own sake.
6. Peer Pressure Them
If you, the parent, can’t get your kids to eat vegetables by modeling the behavior, maybe your kids’ friends can. Find a family friend who’s already gotten his or her child onboard with leafy greens and hearty produce and have the child over for dinner one night. The power of peer pressure cannot be understated: The sooner a child sees a friend doing something, the more worthwhile the behavior becomes. Sorry Mom and Dad, even when it comes to vegetables, you’re just not cool enough.
7. Work In Pairs
Even though bribery is frowned upon, associations are fair game. In fact, they could be instrumental if used as veggie on-ramps. A study released earlier this February showed pairing vegetables with more kid-friendly foods, such as Brussels sprouts and cream cheese, does a good job at grooming kids to like the Brussels sprouts on their own: a jump from 20 percent before the cream cheese to 72 percent after being primed with the paired item.
Tastes For Life
The bottom line with coaxing kids into eating vegetables is really that trickery only works for so long. All this psychological deceit is really only meant to cultivate genuine preference, so “Magic green beans” can return to their ordinary green bean selves without complaint from the child.
But time is not unlimited. Much like your toddler’s jaw when he clamps it shut in the face of mushy peas, once the window for acquiring new tastes starts to close, it’s much harder to pry it back open.