You’ve been dreading this day and hoping it would never come. Praying your efforts at introducing a wide variety of food would save you from this day — the day your toddler says no to veggies.
Not only does your picky eater say no, he or she completely shuns them.
You’re tempted to coax your child to eat. You might beg him or her to take a bite. You plead and maybe even offer up a delicious bribe.
While these are tempting tactics, don’t do it. Research is clear that these strategies may work for the short term, but they don’t shape a preference for veggies and may even turn your toddler off of them for a long time. Instead, plug along with these tips — some for you and some for your toddler — and remember, for most toddlers on strike, it’s just a phase.
1. Put on a poker face.
Or put on a happy face. Whatever you do, don’t let your emotions show. One study showed that if parents show enjoyment when eating with a smile on their face and pleasant comments about the food, their child was more likely to eat what the parents were eating. If you are upset, annoyed, or worried, it will come across on your face, and give your toddler feedback (or even attention) for not eating veggies. This feedback can be powerful and may reinforce not eating veggies.
2. Don’t give up on veggies.
This is one of the biggest mistakes parents make when it comes to feeding their kids — they give up on rejected food. It’s easy to understand. Who wants to keep buying, cooking, and offering food the kids won’t eat? But the research is clear on this one too: it may take a child up to 15 food exposures before they will be tempted to try a new food. And in the case of learning to like and eat vegetables, the long-term health reward of being patient and persistent is hard to deny.
3. Prep them differently.
If you’re steaming veggies and hoping they will be loved, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Kids are attracted to foods with flavor, which means butter, garlic, salt, sugar, and other spices. Vegetables are naturally bitter. So, flavor up your veggies — draw out the natural sugars by roasting them, sauté them with garlic and olive oil, or just top them with butter and a sprinkle of salt.
4. Use condiments.
Dip carrots in Ranch dressing, celery in peanut butter, and sweet red peppers in hummus. The dips and condiments help to mask the bitter flavor of vegetables. These “carrier vehicles” help children eat vegetables. Don’t worry; most children eventually drop the “carrier” part and learn to like vegetables on their own.
5. Play restaurant and other fun ideas.
Offer vegetables before dinner or a meal as an appetizer, and take the pressure off of eating them at dinner. Get creative with presentation! Remember, your eyes “eat” or consume food before it ever enters the mouth. If you make vegetables look delicious and fun, you have a better chance at success. Make fun pictures with vegetables by assembling them into an animal, a heart, or other appealing object.
Don’t fret if your toddler is on strike! It’s a phase that will surely pass and pass quickly if you stay positive and creative.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, September 2020
- It is common for toddlers to refuse to eat vegetables. This is partly biological because vegetables have a bitter taste.
- How parents respond to vegetable refusal will shape a child’s food preferences and may extend the refusal.
- It’s all about your presentation: use condiments, prepare them differently, and offer them constantly.
My 4 year old is a very picky eater. I have recently discovered that if she helps me prepare the food, she is more likely to at least try it. That is a huge step for us these days. She might not like it, but at least she gave it a shot.