‘Eat Your Vegetables’ Doesn’t Work But Here’s the Secret to Raising a Healthy Eater That Does

I Never Tell My Daughter to Eat Her Vegetables (and She Eats Them Anyway!)
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Parenting is nuts, right? It’s like one minute you’re fighting back tears because your toddler just made up the cutest song in the bathtub and the next minute you’re wondering if you’re legally allowed to lock her in her bedroom for the next 15 years. (Just me?)

Okay, well, I’d be a liar if I didn’t tell you that parenting is hard. So, so hard – and I have points of reference for doing hard things: I spent four winters as a bicycle messenger in Pittsburgh, going up (always up) icy hills on a fixed gear bike. I was once attacked by a swarm of super pissed off wasps. I let shamans guide me on a literally gut-wrenching psychedelic journey in the middle of the rainforest to “find myself.” I’ve even been to Walmart. In New Jersey.

Now a mom, most days I find myself second guessing every single word that comes out of my mouth. I question my decisions. I don’t sleep well. Parenting is like constantly being on one of those upside-down rollercoasters while holding a beaker full of poisonous spider venom and trying not to spill it on everyone in the amusement park below. Just last night, my almost-four-year-old daughter woke up screaming from a nightmare where a bear pulled her hair “a little too hard.”

Still. Sleep-deprived, terrified and all, I know I’m lucky. I’ve got a good kid. She’s sweet and funny and even her camp counselor pulled me aside the other day to tell me she’s one of the most agreeable kids in the whole lot. (No, you’re crying!) And I know there’s a whole lot of stuff that goes into raising good kids, but I’m here today to make the argument that what you feed them may be more important than anything – even more important than lying awake there with them at 4 am talking about how a bear’s claw isn’t really designed for combing curly hair.

“Cooking,” food author and journalist Michael Pollan told Oprah on “Super Soul Sunday” in 2015, is “an expression of love.” Aw. It’s true though. Or at least, it used to be.

Today, we do less cooking that at any other time in history. Twenty-seven minutes on average per day – for all meals combined, says Pollan. Corporations, not doting grandmas or even harried working parents, now do most of our cooking, as we rely on shortcuts and ready-to-eat meals. I’m just as guilty as the next person of relying on corporations to cook my food (maybe a little less than the next person). There are certainly pros to it, even if it’s just a few extra minutes of cuddle time before bed. And many corporations are doing incredibly wonderful things that are worthy of our dollars and our support.

But even the slightest shift — cooking beans from scratch instead of canned — can make a huge difference in the nutritional value of a meal. Not to mention the love factor.

We eat organic, whole foods at my house. We’re vegan, so we eat vegetables, too. Lots and lots of vegetables. I know. You don’t believe me. Kids don’t like vegetables, right? We have to hide them and sneak them and cut them into the shape of unicorn mermaids and even then we’re lucky if they take a bite without spitting it out. But my kid eats them. She likes them. Most days, anyway.

I’ve taken my daughter to fancy dinners (and most recently, a very fun vegan unicorn brunch). And she eats, most meals, without labeling and discriminating just because something on her plate is a vegetable. New food on the plate? She’ll pick it up and take a bite. Or she’ll ask what it is first, then pick it up and take a bite. Sometimes she eats it all. Sometimes not. I know part of that reason she’s adventurous and comfortable with new food at mealtime is because we never made separate meals for her. At the advice of our doctor (any many others), we gave her “grown-up” food (minus the salt) as a baby. She ate cumin, garlic, ginger, and paprika before her first birthday. She can order off the kid’s menus at restaurants if she wants (often she orders off the grown-up’s), but at home we all eat the same food.

“From the time they’re very young, some infants are more ‘approaching’ and react positively to new things, whereas other infants are more ‘withdrawing’ and react negatively to the same stimuli,” says Kameron Moding, a postdoctoral fellow at University of Colorado Denver who received her doctorate in human development and family studies from Penn State, and author of a new paper on kids eating habits, published today in Child Development.

“The results suggest that infant and toddler responses to new foods are based on their temperament,” Moding said. “Infants who show hesitation in response to new toys will likely show hesitation when trying new foods for the first time as well.”

And that’s got to give some parents pause. It’s not (necessarily) your cooking (or the corporations’). It’s something just built-into our DNA.

But I’m also convinced that a bigger part of the reason my daughter eats her vegetables is because I never utter those three most annoying words to a kid: “Eat. Your. Vegetables.”

As logical a request as that is – we all want our kids to get the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in veggies – the second we turn it into a demand, it sounds like a chore. It is a chore. And especially if you have a kid whose temperament is predisposed to hesitation in the first place. Maybe when my daughter is eight-years-old that’ll be easier to explain and get results from. But now, at nearly four, no one food is singled out on the plate not just because all of the food we feed her is healthy. But because it’s assumed she’s going to eat it — or at least try it — without discrimination. She knows that I’m not going to refigure the meal for her. This is dinner. It’s tasty. It’s healthy. And it’s all you get.

It’s not a perfect system, and just like anyone she has her moods. But just this summer, the girl who swore she hated zucchini has started shoveling it into her mouth with no encouragement from me. She’ll dissect an artichoke petal by petal with both patience and gusto. I’ve got video of her cramming a palm-size piece of kale into her mouth. I’m not gloating — really — but I am (hopefully) proving this point: vegetables are good. They taste good. Carrots are sweet and crunchy. Snap peas are practically fluorescent green! Kale is chewy and savory.

The problem is we’ve just let our relationship to corporatized vegetables redefine what they should taste like. And when we fear them in their natural and least processed state, we allow our kids to fear them, too. And that’s not to say there aren’t going to be moments of resistance. After all, kids rarely are the ones who decide what they’re having for dinner, and they may just not be in a broccoli mood on Thursday.

But when we stop tacking on the I-know-they’re-yucky-but-they-re-good-for-you-so-eat-them disclaimer to healthy food, we allow our children to develop a critical relationship with it. We let them decide what they like and don’t like. But more than that, we help them to understand the value of each meal. Not just the fact that here in America we’re lucky to have so much abundance on our plates. But the value in the sacrifice made for our meal—be that by the farmer who woke at 4 am to harvest the cabbage, or for meat eaters, the animals who made the ultimate sacrifice. There’s a complex chain of people, plants, and animals tied to what we eat. That’s worth more than twenty-seven minutes of our day to alchemize it all into a wholesome, healthy meal. It’s certainly worth not scraping uneaten vegetables into the trash can night after night. But it’s also something more than that that each one of us needs to come to understand and embrace. And it’s something we’re never too young to learn: Eating good food is not a chore. It’s a privilege.

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.