As a child, I lived on a ‘diet’ of potatoes with apple sauce, sandwiches with chocolate sprinkles and…. No, that was it actually. And by the way I hated vegetables. Together with one of my sisters who set the example, we drove mom and dad crazy. My sister didn’t put anything in her mouth that looked remotely green or healthy and I gladly followed her example.
My mom tried everything – forcing, begging, bribing and preparing ‘special kid’s food’. Nothing worked, to the extent that she took my sister to the doctor, because she looked so thin (my sister, not my mother :-)). Eventually we somehow grew up, basically repulsed by vegetables until we were teens and started eating more at our friends’ houses, where vegetables were on the plate.
Now that I am a mom myself, I actually love vegetables (still not all of them though). And I feel really bad for making my mom miserable with our eating habits, she even lost her love for cooking for many years. Luckily she found that love back when her green-hating-kids took off. And now I have a toddler girl myself who wants to eat plain cooked pasta all day long. Karma is a B****.
Game plan needed!
Since my parents’ countless strategies didn’t exactly work on me, I knew that I’d really need a serious game plan for my strong willed (= dictator) girl – some day she will rule The Netherlands, I’m telling you. And so I set out to research how to get my daughter to eat healthy by reading quite a few blogs and books on this topic.
What I found is that the root of the problem lies in the natural taste preference of humans in general. For thousands of years, eating fat and sweet food meant survival (calorie-rich food). Vegetables on the other hand sometimes taste somewhat bitter, a taste that back in the ‘savannah’ days could mean danger (poisoned food). So we’re pretty much wired not to like vegetables, although this doesn’t serve us well at all in the abundant world we’re living in today.
Since eating vegetables doesn’t come naturally to us, we must learn it. In my research I found many tips, opinions and tricks to help your toddler actually do this. What resonated with me the most though was one particular rule of thumb that I came across a few times during my research. The basic idea is simple: don’t give your toddler anything else, except what’s on the plate – a healthy meal including vegetables (in a future blog I will go in detail into how to compose a healthy meal in a way your toddler will eat it). Your child is only allowed to eat what you’re eating as well. Which by the way means that you have to set the example, of course. There is no way you can persuade your toddler to eat vegetables if you’re hogging a hot pizza away yourself.
Another way to look at it is that you choose when and what they eat, and they choose how much they eat of it. Although on the surface a simple solution, it isn’t simple at all simple in practice, as being a parent never is.
Won’t she starve?
The first thing I found myself thinking was: ‘won’t she starve?’ That’s literally what I was thinking. So I looked it up for myself. And the answer is (of course) no. A healthy child won’t starve itself . And if your child does, please seek help from a professional. It’s normal for young kids to fluctuate in appetite, sometimes they will eat two plates full of food, other times two spoons – but if they’re really hungry, they’ll eat eventually. And keep in mind that we humans can go without food for a couple of weeks!
I’m a horrible mom!
Sure, in the really short term, my toddler will act like I’m a horrible mom (and I might feel like one). But of course, the opposite is true. I’m doing everything I can to make sure my baby girl grows up healthy. I even am prepared to feel miserable and make her (and my) life miserable for a while to achieve that. What a great mom I am!
Won’t (s)he wake up hungry in the middle of the night?!
If your child eats enough during the day, (s)he won’t wake up during the night . If he or she doesn’t eat enough during the transition period while you’re trying to get him or her used to vegetables, (s)he might wake up hungry, especially when a child isn’t such a good sleeper anyway. In such a case, try offering your toddler a glass of water and help him/her to get back to sleep. I wouldn’t advise on giving him/her any food during the night, as it might backfire on you in the future. The next days and on, monitor how much you child’s intake. If (s)he doesn’t eat enough, you may consider giving a healthy desert (like plain yogurt or fruit) after dinner. In our home, desserts are not something that we ‘do’ regularly, as children may consciously eat less of the main meal because they know the dessert is still to come. We sporadically eat dessert with our children though, but more often the dessert is a guilty pleasure of me and my husband once the children are in bed (evil us!).
So, how did it go?
Well, obviously, when I first tried the ‘this is the only thing that you’ll be getting’ approach – my daughter was not really amused. She really kicked back, started to yell and scream. And then – and that was the hardest part – she played the emo card: “I’m hungry, please give something else!*” Ouch. Stay..Calm… I promised myself to keep going for at least a week before giving up. And within just a few days – almost to my surprise – my daughter started to eat what’s on the plate and still does. Every now and then, she still has an ‘off day’, but I was actually amazed at how well this worked, just for her knowing that there were no other options available.
In the end
I’ve learned to become more relaxed about my daughter eating vegetables. At times when she doesn’t feel like eating what’s on her plate, we kindly let her know that’s all she’ll be getting and proceed to have our family talk over dinner, involving her in the conversation as well. Or ignoring her screaming for pasta or toasted sandwich occasionally. But most of the time, my daughter is actually eating and enjoying veggies! And so I really encourage you to give this approach a try and end up enjoying the sight of your child eating vegetables like candy. Or at least eating vegetables without being disgusted ;-).
What’s your biggest struggle when it comes to your toddler and eating? Leave a comment and I will get back with you!