“Just one more bite!” I pleaded with my son. His lips pursed shut, his head moved back and forth as he protested, “nnnnooooooo!”
“Pleeaase? For mama. Here we go – vrrrrmmmmm.” My shaky airplane landing impressed him enough that he swatted me away and his toddler-sized fork went flying out of my hand.
I gave up. There was no way I was going to get him to eat that broccoli. Or green beans, or any “greens,” for that matter. My son has an aversion to most veggies, actually. Unless I douse them with loads of ketchup, Ranch dressing or some other sweet or tangy sauce, he stubbornly refuses them. The one exception is sweet peas, which he pops in his mouth like candies.
Yet, when it comes to chicken nuggets, fish fingers, French fries, mac and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches and mashed potatoes, he’ll tuck right in. Same with anything sweet; his current favorite is whole grain blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, and watermelon. But how is it that, at the tender age of 22 months, he can already make the distinction between “good” foods and “bad” foods – and only wants the bad (fried, breaded and sweet) ones?
Before the mommy brigade condemns me for being an unhealthful mom by feeding him “junk,” let me clarify that I do limit these high-calorie foods to maybe once or twice a week, but when your child goes on food strikes that could last for days, you panic. Nobody wants to send their child to bed hungry, after all.
According to attachment parenting guru, known online as Dr. Sears, kids should be offered three to five servings of veggies a day, and for those under age five, each serving should be a tablespoon for each year of age. So a 2-year-old should ideally consume two tablespoons of veggies three to five times a day.
My son’s pediatrician told me to not force him. He said, “When he’s hungry, he’ll eat, and when he’s not, he’ll make up for it on another day when he regains his appetite.” Of course, he is absolutely right and I should know better than to force food on him. The last thing I want is for him to have negative food emotions when he’s older, or an obesity problem because I trained him to ignore his “I’m stuffed” instinct. Many adults can trace their food aversions back to childhood dinner table battles.
A reluctance to eat veggies often begins around 18 months of age, according to research, and peaks between ages 2 and 6. There’s even a scientific term to describe this refusal to try new foods: “food neophobia.” Add in the fact that these little creatures are exercising more and more independence, and it’s a veggie recipe for disaster!
Relief swept over me when I recently read that this aversion to veggies is actually instinctual, or rather, evolutionary. Our ancestors lived among many toxic plants and as we evolved as humans, we also created a gene that makes the toxins in these plants taste bitter, which discourages us from eating them. And because children have yet to learn which plants are safe and which are dangerous, they have evolved a stronger aversion to bitter tastes. Apparently, we learn which plants are ripe for eating and lose half of our taste receptors by the time we reach age 20, and this is why veggies don’t taste as bitter to our “mature” palates.
According to Dr. Edward Abramson, a clinical psychologist and author of “It’s NOT Just Baby Fat!”, favoring sweet tastes is a survival mechanism that has been passed down to us. Our prehistoric ancestors who ate sour or bitter things were more likely to die, while those who ate only sweet things were more likely to survive. He also claims that a child’s reluctance to try unfamiliar tastes is also inherited, so if you or your partner were (or are) picky eaters, there’s a good chance one of your offspring will follow suit (a study conducted on twins last year confirms this theory, too).
This got me thinking. When I take him for walks and we see an unfamiliar plant, I don’t encourage him to touch or smell it, in case it’s poisonous (or full of fertilizers). Yet, I encourage him to play in puddles, muck around in dirt, pet neighbors’ cats, etc. So, perhaps he has picked up from me subconsciously that green “things” should be avoided? When I dug a little deeper and investigated on Dr. Google, I found my assumptions may be true.
In a study of toddlers and their behavior around plants conducted by two psychologists at Yale University – Dr. Annie Wertz and Dr. Karen Wynn – it was discovered that when playing with different objects, toddlers didn’t pick up natural things like plants as much as they did plastic or metal objects.
Their belief is that this behavior is programmed from birth to avoid being harmed or poisoned by toxic flowers or plants, including being injured from plants’ physical defenses such as fine hairs and thorns; and this behavior strategy correlates to an aversion to eating fruit and veggies (especially leafy, green veggies). However, the initial avoidance, although a default strategy, can be overturned by “social information” indicating that a plant is safe to eat or use for some other purpose.
On that note, I’ve compiled some “social information” below from my own research that you can employ to get your child to eat those veggies! There is light at the end of the tunnel – research shows that picky eating eventually declines as children grow; with just 3 percent remaining fussy by age 6. If all else fails, just eat the leftovers yourself.
Repetition is key
Offer the veggies and if your child refuses, don’t make a big deal out of it; instead, move on to some other food and try again another day. Experts say it may take 10 or more attempts before a child is willing to try it, so be persistent, and don’t give up; also, let him play with his veggies on the plate. By touching and smelling them, he will be more willing to “trust” them next time.
Monkey see, monkey do
Eat your veggies with passion, even if exaggerated. Sooner or later your child will be curious about the food that you think is so delicious, and setting a good example will hopefully make him follow suit.
Start with sweet
Introduce sweeter veggies like peas or carrots first, and then move on to more bitter tastes like spinach, asparagus and Brussels sprouts only after a routine of eating sweeter veggies has been established first.
Mask the taste
This is my personal favorite. Try grating cheese or adding a sweet sauce or seasoning; give your child options to choose from, too. Ketchup, salad dressing, cheese sauce, etc. Kids love to dip and dunk things. Conversely, add veggies to their favorite dishes. I throw sweet peas, carrots and cauliflower into my son’s mac and cheese and he hardly notices when it’s all mixed together into that cheesy goodness.
Go to the source
Plant a vegetable garden with your child, or simply allow him to water the plants. Show him how you can cook with those veggies, and let him wash or prepare them. Same goes for grocery shopping – let your child touch and feel the vegetables in the produce section. Name them as you go.
More starter, less entree
The more veggies you place on your child’s plate, the more will get eaten, and the key is to give these bigger portions when your child is more hungry and before the main dish. This theory is based on a 2103 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which stated that the bigger the entrée, the fewer fruits and veggies were eaten off the plates.
Cut veggies into cute critter shapes; allow kids to make a mess and have fun with their food; give veggies cool names (“cheese trees” for melted cheese on broccoli); add lots of color. This will help create positive associations with veggies.