I hear that some toddlers eat vegetables. Mine does not. Almost ever. He does like broccoli, for some reason, but pretty much nothing else that’s not french fries, hot dogs, or mac and cheese. Will he survive to adulthood on this diet? Should I give him vitamins? Smuggle yams into his hamburgers? Help! – White Diet
Dear White Diet,
Some toddlers do eat vegetables. Others have a seemingly inborn affinity for the white fluffy food group. We’re not sure what the evolutionary reason could be for sweet, processed junk. We do know families in which one kid loves kale and peas and the other demands waffles three times a day. So if you happen to be worrying about whether your child’s limited diet is somehow your fault, there’s some ammo for the nature-over-nurture angle.
Before we even address how to handle your quandary, let’s start with this: Your kid will be fine. We know adults who have lived on this diet (substituting beer for broccoli) for upwards of forty years. Do they look fabulous? No. Are they super healthy? No. Are they alive? Last time we checked. We also know more than a handful of people raised on Frosted Flakes who later blossomed into Extreme Foodies, determined to eat the most outrageous ingredients on the menu.
It is of course a good idea – and some might say, your parental duty – to encourage a healthy diet. But even if all our genius suggestions fail, or you can’t be bothered to try them, your kid will be almost definitely be fine. Broccoli is one of the healthiest foods there is! They make hot dogs out of the most divine fortified, organic ingredients these days! Mac and cheese has plenty of protein! Fine, we tell you, fine.
And, he’s a toddler, which by definition means that in all likelihood, what he’s doing this month will be history the next. Picky eating is actually a developmentally appropriate phase for toddlers. Interestingly, it generally has little to do with food, and lots to do with trying to control the universe. If you’re two, there’s not much you can be the boss of, but you can have a say in what does or doesn’t go into your mouth. So you may not actually have a long-term picky eater on your hands, and your best bet may be to sit back and wait and see whether this habit fades.
Should you decide that you’d like to attempt to nudge your child’s eating habits in a more diverse direction, we can give you some ideas.
1) First. You’ve probably heard this before, but we’ll repeat it because it is the golden rule of healthy eating habits: put the food out there for your kid, but do not insist he eat it. You don’t want meals to be battlegrounds. And you don’t want someone to eat the veggies only in order to get the dessert.
2) Try to engage your kid in the process. Have him help you shop. Cook. Garden, or show him pictures of other people gardening if that’s not an option. When kids are involved, they are less likely to feel as if things are being foisted on them. And if they’re excited about what they’ve done to bring a meal from “farm to table,” or any part thereof, they may completely forget to recoil in horror about the ingredients.
3) Don’t be afraid of flavor. We know many kid-nutrition experts recommend hard lining on veggies, serving naked greens to teach kids to love the natural flavors. While we agree that cauliflower should not be a delivery system for cheese whiz, we do believe in flavor enhancements: olive oil, parmesan, garlic, low sodium soy, butter. We like them on our side dishes, maybe your kid will too?
4) If you think your son might go for it, try for the fun factor. Some kids will eat anything with a smiley face on it. Others are too smart for this by the time they hit one and a half. But fun doesn’t have to mean anthropomorphized food. Some kids go for a fake fancy dinner, or color coordination, or theme meals.
5) If you’re down with the smuggling approach, go for it. But you may be fine sticking with healthy versions of your kid’s core diet. Organic hot dogs on whole wheat buns, baked fries, mac and cheese with whole grain pasta; there’s a lot there, even without the holy grail of broccoli.
6) Supplements are also a possibility. There are lots of food-based options for kids now, which can be easier on the body. Talk to your doctor if you want more info.
7) Change up the dynamic: try foods at other people’s houses, or hang out with kids who are adventurous eaters. Who knows? A good example might tip the balance and open your kid’s mind.
8) You’ll have to keep your own mind open too. Don’t give up on foods the first time your toddler scoffs. Keep an eye on the circumstances and when your child seems most open to eating. Your son may be more inclined to eat new things if he’s really hungry. Now that it’s warm out, try feeding him dinner right after a big run at the park. Sometimes kids snack quite a bit or have a sedentary afternoon before dinner and then don’t have the appetite required for experimentation. We’re not sure when you eat, but some families find many aspects of the dinner ritual improve when eating time is moved up to about five p.m.
9) You can play your part by showing him how much you enjoy trying new things. If he’s regularly hearing you say things like, “Mmmmm, I want to try one of those” as you lean across a table of exotic items, he might start brewing his own curiosity. So, throw a few adventurous items into your grocery bag next time you’re at the store and then loudly appreciate them at home.
Good luck, and bon appetit!
Your turn. Tell us what tricks you employ to get your toddler to eat veggies?