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Why Your Kids Won’t Eat Vegetables, and What You Can Do About It

How you can cure your child's veggie phobia.

Do you plead with your kids, "Just try a little," only to be met with stubborn refusal? What about your own feelings about veggies? You know that "they're good for you" and usually are low in calories but, like many adults, you would prefer to eat something else. You may think that eating vegetables is something that you should do, rather than something you want to do. Most kids are even more reluctant. They hate vegetables and will often just refuse to eat them. What's the problem with veggies, and how can we get kids (and ourselves) to eat more of them?

It may help to recognize that we're born preferring sweet tastes; we have to learn to like everything else. How old were you before you finally could eat an olive without making a face? There's a good reason why we prefer sweet tastes. Some sour or bitter substances are poisonous or inedible but very few sweet-tasting things are. Hundreds of thousands of years ago our prehistoric ancestors who ate sour or bitter things were more likely to perish, those who ate only sweet things were more likely to survive. Liking sweet tastes was a survival mechanism that has been passed down to us. Thousands of years ago it was adaptive; obesity wasn't a problem then. Now, our innate preference for sweets can contribute to unnecessary weight gain.

Most of the time when a child refuses vegetables, he's not being willful or malicious; the reluctance to try unfamiliar tastes was inherited. If your child was breastfed he may have a slight advantage in learning to like new foods because the taste of breast milk varied from day to day depending on what Mom's been eating. The breastfed baby is accustomed to different tastes so it's easier to try something new. In contrast, the taste of formula is always the same so it might take longer for a bottle-fed infant to accept a new taste.

How do you get your kids to eat their veggies without getting into a battle of wills? First, recognize that it may take many repetitions before a child will accept a new food. Offer the vegetable and if your child refuses don't get upset, plead, or engage in lengthy discussions about the virtues of vegetables. Instead, move on to some other topic and try again another day. It may take 10 or more repetitions before your child is willing to try it.

Second, let your child see you enjoying a vegetable dish. Prepare something that you like and eat it with enthusiasm. Sooner or later your child is likely to be curious about the food that you think is so delicious.

Third, start with sweeter vegetables like peas or carrots. Save the stronger, more bitter tastes (spinach, asparagus, Brussels sprouts) for later when eating veggies has become routine.

Fourth, ask your child how she would like the vegetable prepared. Would she like it better if it were sprinkled with some grated cheese? Is there a seasoning that would make it more appetizing?

If, after several repetitions, you still meet with reluctance, ask your child to help you cook the meal. If he spends part of the afternoon with you preparing the vegetables it's unlikely that he'll refuse to try the dish he helped make. You can also have your child help you plant a vegetable garden, have him water the plants, harvest the crop, bring them in the kitchen, and then help cook them.

Don't let vegetables, or any healthy eating, become a battleground. Instead of getting frustrated, recognize that there are good reasons why your child might be reluctant to accept new foods. If you are persistent and set a good example, it's likely that eventually, he'll try a little. For more tips on healthy eating, check my book, It's NOT Just Baby Fat!: 10 Steps to Help Your Child to a Healthy Weight.

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