Friday, August 5, 2016

The No-Vegetable Diet (i.e. the life of my 2 year old)

I'm going to be honest with you. This kid doesn't do dinner. Allow me summarize his nightly intake for you from this past week:

What was served: Chicken/Shrimp Stir-fry with HOMEGROWN Green Beans and Peanut Sauce, Rice, Milk
What he ate: rice with peanut sauce, 2 shrimp, milk.

What was served: Grilled Nectarine Salad with Steak and Blue Cheese, Cherry Tomatoes, Milk
What he ate: approximately 2 1/2 nectarines, a sip of milk.

What was served: Skillet Chicken and Zucchini Enchiladas, Watermelon, Milk
What he ate: watermelon. Lots and lots of watermelon.

What was served: Tilapia Corn Chowder, Chocolate Zucchini Muffins, Bell pepper strips, Watermelon, Milk
What he ate: muffin, watermelon, milk.

What was served: Farfalle and Red Sauce with Meatballs, Green Salad, Milk and WINE
What he ate: pasta, and a couple meatballs.

Ok, so I take that back. He does eat dinner, the carbohydrate parts at least. I guess what I'm really saying is that rarely does he touch the protein option and even rarer still, the vegetable. In my earlier mothering years, this sort of behavior really stressed me out. I am a dietitian, after all. Of course I want my "pupils" to wow the crowds with their love of vegetables. But y'all, this is my third time through the rodeo and let me tell you, fretting over your child's non-vegetable-containing diet is simply not worth your freaking-out energies. Stock pile those for other parenting debacles like sibling rivalry and figuring out how the heck to get your kids to keep their rooms even remotely sort of clean. But don't waste your stress on this one. No, it's simply not worth it and frankly, it will only make things worse.

One of the BEST things you can do for both yourself and your toddler/preschool-aged child is back off and let them pick what they want to eat from the options you serve. Listen up here folks - this is important! I didn't say to let them eat whatever they want. I said let them eat what they want from the options you serve. You still very much have a role here, and an important one at that! Continue to offer balanced meals with plenty of fruits AND vegetables but let go of the worry about whether or not they actually eat them.


Our toddlers and preschoolers are still growing their taste palates. They have a lot of learning yet to do in the eating arena. Believe it or not, eating truly is a learned behavior. It may take awhile but, with continued exposure and great example-setting by their parents, kids will come around and eventually broaden their eating horizons.

Your kids need to see you eating and serving balanced meals. It may not seem like it at times, but their little eyes are always watching, picking up on your example. If you are trying (and enjoying!) the green beans, they will notice and eventually join the party. As your child grows and moves toward the school-aged years, their natural curiosity will increase. One day, some day in the blessed future, you will fall off your chair as you watch your formerly "picky" child reach for the tray of fresh veggies ALL ON THEIR OWN. Trust me, this did eventually happen with my older two and now we are a 3-carton-a-week cherry tomato family, just to keep up with their intakes.

Don't get me wrong, until that day comes, I totally get the worry. I struggle with it sometimes too. Is my kid getting enough protein? Is he getting the vitamins and minerals he needs? Let me address these concerns for you from the perspective of a dietitian: quite honestly, if your child eats absolutely zero veggies but happily eats fruit, you probably have nothing to worry about. If you still can't shake the worry, by all means, give them a multi-vitamin to cover your bases. They need the vitamin D from it anyways. Then do you best to press on ahead, keep serving healthy, balanced meals, accepting that your child will likely decline half of it. This is ok. Allow them to politely pass on a dish with a simple "no thank you," trusting that this is a very normal phase for young kids, particularly in the 2-4 year old range.

In the meantime though, while you are waiting for your kid to wake up and realize they like more than just carbs (ha! I say this only partially in jest...), by all means, step it up and incorporate vegetables in some of your every day recipes. If you, like me, have a child who refuses to touch vegetables on their own, here are some tips on making them a part of the recipes you prepare. (SIDE NOTE: I do not support "hiding" or "sneaking" vegetables into dishes. This sends a subliminal yet very clear message to our kids that vegetables are "bad" or something that we don't enjoy. Rather, I encourage openness when adding vegetables to recipes, toting how they add a rainbow of colors and flavors to the things we eat).

Here are some easy yet non-traditional ways to serve vegetables for the child who won't yet eat them plain:

Add greens to smoothies. This is a novel idea to exactly nobody, I know. I jumped on the smoothie ship about 3 years after it left the port, but hey, at least I'm doing it now. My kids may not always choose fresh veggies when they are presented to them on their own but they WILL drink them in a smoothie. My kids love helping me add the ingredients and operate the blender. NEWSFLASH: kids often are more apt to try something if they get in on the preparation. Some of our favorite green smoothie additions include beet greens from our garden, fresh spinach or kale and grated zucchini. I know it is a bit counter-intuitive to our culture these days but I intentionally have my kids be the ones to add the vegetables to the blender as I WANT them to know they are in there. I'm pretty sure now it wouldn't be a smoothie to them if there WEREN'T vegetables in it.

Add shredded veggies to sauces. Because I accidentally grew The World's Largest Zucchini (please see photo below), we've had a lot of spare grated zucchini lying around. Last night I had my husband throw a handful of it into our pasta sauce and it was delicious. Honestly, I couldn't even tell it was there. You can also do the same thing with grated carrots. Another idea (if you have a crew of pasta lovers like we do), is to switch over to a bolognese meat sauce instead of a generic red. The first step in preparing bolognese is to finely chop a bunch of onions, carrots and celery (I use my food processor to speed up this step). I always increase the amount of veggies called for in the recipe and have never been disappointed with the result. The vegetables are chopped so finely they essentially disintegrate into the sauce, adding delicious flavor, dimension and nutrition to the dish. Voila.

Have a veggie with your carb. I'm on a grated zucchini kick (and I think you all now know why...) It's so versatile and can be added to almost anything - pancakes, waffles, muffins, and cake. Even my favorite chocolate cupcake recipe includes shredded zucchini. Since my son loves him some carbs, I know that he'll get at least a tablespoon or two of vegetables if I throw zucchini in the batter. I'm telling you, every little bit counts!

If you've tried every "trick" in the book and your child still is not eating vegetables, allow me to let you in on a little secret - you are certainly not alone! Most all of us with preschoolers are in the very same boat right along with you. I'd like to let you off the hook a little. I know this isn't what you were raised to believe, but it isn't your job to get your kid to eat their vegetables. Your job is to offer them healthy foods, yes, but it is up to them whether they choose to eat them. It certainly may not feel like it on this day, during this week, in this year, but eventually, eventually they WILL eat them. Maybe not all of them. Maybe not as much of them as you'd like. But at least some of them. Instead of wasting your sweat and tears, pressuring your child to try at least one bite, present to them a colorful spread of a meal, and then pull up a chair, sit back and relax and enjoy your dinner.

This is truly the best gift you can give them.

(***If this is your first time visiting my blog, you can check out more of my approaches to feeding kids on the "Feeding" tab above. I'd recommend you first read this post entitled Freedom From Food Fights that explains the role of parent vs child, also known as the Division on Responsibility, in feeding)

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posted by kelsie