Almost every parent frets that their toddler only wants to eat macaroni, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and cookies while other kids with smarter parents are asking for a second helping of kale right before they go make their own bed without being asked. To get our kids to try to eat something that grew in the ground that wasn’t wheat, parents resort from everything from threats to bribery, making them clean their plates or at least try everything.
When NPR reporter Sarah Varney recently found herself telling her son he would grow up to be small and weak to convince him to eat his veggies, she wondered if there might not be a better way, so she did the sensible thing that most of us never do and consulted with the experts. The advice they gave was surprising.
What the experts told her was that kids are actually very good at making their own choices about food and the best thing to do is to put healthy choices in front of them and let them eat what they want. Intervening only interferes with their self-regulation and the existence of restrictions makes them more likely to go for the restricted food when given the chance.
I’d read something similar before–an experiment from the 1920s, I think, where they let kids in an orphanage eat whatever they wanted and they all ended up eating really healthy diets, just in really weird ways. Like they’d eat a ton of monkfish liver (I swear I think that was one of the choices they had) one day and a ton of fruit the next, but never a balanced diet at one meal or even on one day.
In a way, it also makes intuitive sense that banning some foods and forcing others can backfire. When you forbid something, you make it look awfully attractive. And at the same time, you don’t let your offspring develop self-control around the forbidden object. It’s like the kid in the freshman dorm with the repressive parents. Of course he’s going to wind up dancing naked on top of a cop car before the first semester is over.
Still as a parent, it’s hard to sit there and watch your kid ignore food that you know is healthy. Our daughter has to at least try everything on her plate (except things with onions, which we’ve just accepted for the time being that she doesn’t like), and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. In fact, we’ve had some luck lately with broccoli and we’re working it into dinner more often as a result. But I think at the very least, we can worry a little less and not try to force the issue too much. And for the parents of a toddler, something to worry less about is a victory, too.
For more information and approaches to take with your picky eater (and all toddlers are picky eaters), check out Sarah Varney’s article here.