Kids Don’t Like Veggies. So What?

I hate a vegetables! I'm not eating this!

As a toddler, my oldest child was an infuriatingly picky eater. Although I envied his carb-heavy diet of bread, rice, potatoes, and pasta, I worried that he wasn’t eating nutritiously. Each time I took him to the pediatrician, I braced for the diagnosis: scurvy or rickets or some other nearly obsolete condition last seen in sailors in the seventeenth century, all because of the dearth of vitamins and nutrients in his diet.

Of course, my pediatrician delivered no such news and instead suggested I relax and do my best. That was good adviceadvice that sadly too few parents hear these days. Instead, parents are told that kids must eat their veggies, or else! This overwrought and entirely unnecessary stress about eating is making parenting harder and turning mealtime into an unpleasant ordeal.

Consider this story in the New York Times, which starts out with the not-so-surprising statistic that “nine out of ten American kids aren’t eating enough vegetables, and six out of ten don’t get enough fruit.” The article then highlights the thriving cottage industry that has sprung up from this “eat your veggies!” obsession.

A California company, Oh Yes Foods, is betting that parents will embrace pizza that’s loaded up with hidden fruits and vegetables. (Pizza is the second highest source of calories in our kids’ diets) The product is available in some Western states at Whole Foods and Target.

Amy Goldsmith, the chief executive of Oh Yes, said two of the company’s founders, both medical doctors, struggled for years with their picky daughter. “They tried everything to get her to eat healthy food but she just wouldn’t do it,” she says. “It was all about hot dogs and cheese pizza.” In desperation, they dried fruits and vegetables in an old food dehydrator they had, then used their coffee grinder to powder the produce and slip it into their daughter’s pizza crust and sauce.

Oh Yes Foods has created a savvy solution to help fool many kids into getting their recommended daily allowance of healthy stuff. But what I find confusing is why the founders of this company, who say they “struggled for years” with their picky eaters, didn’t ever take a moment to think back to their own eating habits when they were children. One suspects they were like most children—picky. Yet, over time, they likely expanded their food choices, eventually becoming adults who understood the importance of fruits and vegetables and began eating them.

That’s certainly what happened to me. As a child, I was a pill at mealtime. My poor mom had to strictly segregate everything on the plate. Nothing could touch and I liked foods prepared as blandly and tastelessly as possible. Plain noodles (no sauce, no butter), plain rice, buttered bread—these were my staples. Of course, my mom made me eat meat and vegetables. She’d place the spaghetti sauce in a small bowl and I ate it with a spoon, while pinching my nose. Meat was placed on the plate—very far away from the starchand I ate it without chewing, chasing chunks of meat with big gulps of milk. Mostly, I did this forced eating while crying. My mom didn’t care.

And yet, today, I’m nothing like that picky eater. I seek out the strongest flavors, regularly eat a variety of ethnic cuisines, and love to cook lesser known cuts of meat. I love Asian markets where the produce sections offer unique and exotic items not found in the neighborhood Safeway or Giant. When my husband and I eat at fine restaurants, I always order things I don’t prepare at home: like lamb brains, sweetbreads, shad roe, and eel.

The point is, kids grow up and expand their palates. Very few adults maintain their toddler food demands and preferences. Of course, some do, but those few adults are now recognized as having a medical condition called “selective eating disorder.” These people feel incapable of eating anything but a few select items. This condition is extremely rare and affects only a very small subset of the population. Yet, it seems most parents react to their child’s pickiness as though they’re raising someone who will eventually have this disorder.

Instead, parents need to gain a little perspective. In Western culture, it’s actually quite difficult for kids to miss out on vital nutrients. Today, food sold in the grocery store is packed with vitamins and nutrients. Common foods that even picky eaters enjoy—like orange juice, milk, cereals, breads, certain snacks, and other beverages—are often fortified with certain essential micronutrients in order to improve the nutritional quality of the final product.

No one is suggesting you stop trying to get your kid to love green beans and broccoli. But stressing out about your child’s diet to the point that you’re buying pricey foods designed to fool them into healthy eating is an unnecessary and expensive parent trap. Don’t fall for it.

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  • InklingBooks

    During WWII, it was known that the liberation of Europe would mean the freeing of many people in concentration camps who’d had little or nothing to eat for long periods of time. Some brave American pacifists volunteered to starve themselves, so the best diet for recovery from starvation could be discovered.

    As I recall, the results were surprising. Initially, their diet had to be limited until their body learn to digest food again. But once that was over, researchers discovered that the best diet was to simply let the men involved eat what they wanted and as much as they wanted—often as much as 15,000 calories a day.

    You can find more in The Great Starvation Experiment by Todd Tucker. The actual research was published in two volumes as The Biology of Human Starvation by Ancel Keys.

    Maybe kids who hate some vegetables are displaying similar good sense. Within limits, their bodies know what they need to eat in order to grow. Parents don’t need to worry.

  • valjean

    No one is suggesting you stop trying to get your kid to love green beans and broccoli.

    Um, (hand up) — I am. Just stop — it’s not your job and it’ll only get them to hate those foods more (if that’s possible) and probably be plenty annoyed with you.

    Your job as a parent is to put nutritious food on the table. Your children’s job is to eat what they need — and you can obviously make suggestions. But that’s it. Trying to meet some mythical “recommended daily allowance” (dreamed up by those same FDA geniuses who’ve been raging against fats and pushing carbs for generations) is crazy-making. Ms. Gunlock’s point is well-taken: children will grow up and expand their diets, like we all did.

    • Heather Nicole Mattingly

      It’s not your job, as a parent, to make sure that they eat healthy? Really? You’re an idiot and I pity your kids.

      • valjean

        Ah, thanks for the advice Heather. Clearly we have different ways of approaching this issue — offering vs. “making sure” — but since you seem so quick to reach for invective and pity, we can both feel sorry for each other.

        • saltysailor

          Hey, that’s no way to respond to Heather Three Names!

    • Micha_Elyi

      I don’t care so much if my kids don’t “love green beans and broccoli”. Or Brussels sprouts. But I do want them to try ’em. And if we are guests at someone else’s home and we’re served “green beans and broccoli” then I want them to man up, be polite guests, and eat enough of what they’re served to show appreciation for the host’s show of hospitality.

  • Heather Nicole Mattingly

    So you grind them up and change their composition? Parents man up. You’re in charge, not them. Yes, it may be a fight but it’s a fight worth winning because their health is at stake. Don’t go hiding the healthy food in junk. How about you demonstrate. Eat the vegetables yourself and act like it’s the best thing in the world to you. And if that doesn’t work, make them eat just a few bites. Make them try it before they decide they don’t like it. If you let them decide what they eat, they’ll choose nothing but junk. They don’t know what is good for them.

  • Terenc Blakely

    Unless a kid has some kind of food allergies, picky eating is just a power play by kids who’ve never experienced real hunger.

    • Micha_Elyi

      Yes, do try to time the introduction of new foods when the kid is very hungry. The result will often be that the kid has a new favorite food.

      Also don’t neglect the importance of setting an example. Mom and Dad should eat what they want their kids to eat. There’s also some evidence that infant food preferences are influenced by Mom’s diet while the baby was in the womb.

  • tjanus

    People forget that taste buds deteriorate over time and the brain matures until 26yo. So, perhaps to children these foods ACTUALLY do taste bad. Give them a break.

    • saltysailor

      Yes, let’s get them Hot Chocolate and Puppy Dogs.

  • smartsenior

    I told my kids they had to eat two bites of everything they were served and that’s it. They were forgiven for leaving the rest on their plates and the upside was they didn’t make a fuss about anything. Over time those two bites turned into gourmet loving adults but this was especially smart when we were eating at someone else’s house. My kids never said boo to the hostess, they quietly tried their two bites and then pushed stuff around. No fights no fuss no difficult kids.

    • Micha_Elyi

      Had a similar rule for my kleintjes. They had to taste everything they were served. If they didn’t like it, they could spit it out on to their plate and not eat the rest. The possibility that they would be allowed to spit out their food usually got that first bite into their mouths. They rarely actually spit anything out.

  • Howard

    Feeding kids is like transitioning a dog from canned to dry. You put it out there and it’s all they get. If they don’t eat it, that’s fine. Sooner or later, they get hungry enough to eat it. Kids only remain picky eaters if their parents enable them.

  • caradoc

    So much of this “kids hate veggies” think is just a hangover from parent’s childhood. For most people in their mid-thirties and older, the only veggies you were likely to get were at best frozen, but more likely (and disgustingly) canned. How many parents only grew up liking corn and french cut green beans because of that?

    And since they don’t like veggies, they don’t try or know how to make them properly. And kids know their parents don’t like ’em. I grew up the same way, but learned better when I was an adult, and my kids have no problem eating veggies. Broccoli is our go to veggie, and it is the first thing to disappear from my kids plates every meal. Asparagus goes fast too. Even the veggies that aren’t their favorite they will eat because they haven’t been fed so much bland mushy garbage that they assume all veggies are nasty.

    Stop using canned or frozen unless in a stew. Fresh veggies only if they stand alone. Don’t overcook veggies and make them mushy, that is one of the biggest reasons people don’t like them. Make them with every meal.

    Try to grill, steam, or roast some asparagus (splash it with balsamic vinegar). Steam some broccoli florets (don’t make them eat the thick stems. Put some butter, lemon juice and garlic powder in the microwave for a quick broccoli sauce). Roast some broccolini. Choy sum in stir-fry, sauteed, or blanched as a side.