Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The One Word That Changes How Kids Eat

Stop trying to get kids to eat veggies. Research shows another solution.

We are stuck in a cultural war with our kids and we're losing. The more we try to get kids to eat veggies the less they want to eat them. I call this a cultural war because veggie-avoidance is so widespread now it practically defines our country's attitude towards food. There's a slew of research that backs this up.

One word can change everything. Sounds hyperbolic, I know, but there's a lot at stake. Kids' eating habits. Family peace. Our country's collective health.

Here's the word: Teach.

Stop trying to get kids to eat veggies. Teach them to eat veggies instead. That's it. It's simple, yet profound. Here's why. Get is about convincing. It's coercive. It's adversarial. Get is something you do to someone else. Sometimes get happens without consent. Other times it happens with a lot of convincing. Hide foods. Force a bite. Bribe. Beg. Barter.

Teach is different. It's collaborative. It's kind. It's interactive. Teach makes a better assumption about kids.

Compare: I am trying to teach my child to walk, with, I am trying get my child to walk. Or, I am trying to teach my child to read, with, I am trying to get my child to read.

Teach assumes your child needs to learn the skill of walking or reading. Get assumes your child just doesn't want to walk or read. The same is true when it comes to eating.

Compare: I am trying to teach my child to eat vegetables, with, I am trying to get my child to eat vegetables.

Or better yet, compare: I can't teach my child to eat vegetables, with I can't get my child to eat vegetables. Doesn't teach just feel better? Also, in this context, teach puts our focus on the parents, get puts it on the kids.

Of course, parents don't really mean get, they mean teach, but the language shapes the mindset. The mindset shapes the tools you look for, and the tools shape the interactions. There is a huge body of research investigating the different ways parents influence how their children eat. That research doesn't explicitly use the word teach either. It's time it did. Every time we feed our kids we're teaching them something. The only question that remains is, What are you going to teach?

  1. Understand that children would eat the way we want them to if they kid. Children who refuse to try new foods experience anxiety, fear or other worries. They may not be risk takers. See the world through their eyes. Want to know what it feels like? Imagine eating something totally bizarre. Recently I've been asking adults to eat edible worms. It mimics how kids feel when we ask them to eat something out of their comfort zone. Something like tomatoes.
  2. Teach kids how to explore new foods. It takes more than, Yum. This is a kiwi. It's good. Want to taste it? Encourage poking, prodding, sniffing, shaking, licking, and more. Children need to build up a database of food facts so new foods have a context.
  3. When you run into impediments, ask kids how they feel about new food, the process of exploring new foods, the parent-child dynamic. Problem-solve together.

—Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.

About the Author
Dina Rose Ph.D.

Dina Rose, Ph.D., is a sociologist and the author of the book It's Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating and the blog It's Not About Nutrition.