ALL of the parents I have ever worked with in consultations have trouble getting their children to eat vegetables.
Kids don't give a flying turtle if something is healthy or not!
They are ruled by intuition, feeling and live 100% in the moment. They don't eat healthy because they want to grow big and strong, or sleep better, or do well at school. So telling them something is healthy or good for them is rarely ever enough motivation. Why?
Here are 3 reasons why you are struggling to get your kid to eat vegetables, and what to do about it!
1. Chemistry: Sugar lights up the brain like a Christmas tree - stimulating the same pleasure centres of the brain as cocaine.
After eating a sweet sugary/junk food treat, your kid gets a major hit of dopamine. Their brain chemistry is literally telling them they need MORE of that stuff.
But when they eat, say broccoli on the other hand, they don't get that same dopamine rush. In fact, bitter foods are often a tell-tale sign in nature that something may be poisonous. Since broccoli is slightly bitter, while you are telling your kid "eat it because its healthy!" their intuition is telling them - be careful, this might kill you. Which voice do you think is louder?
Watch the documentary That Sugar Film. Its a few years old now but the information is still just as relevant now as ever before. In this film, they discuss how children are having teeth extracted before they are TWO from high sugar drinks.
I must be crazy, because its not 'normal' to have a healthy low/no sugar spread at a toddler birthday party, but I'm sorry, I think my children need their teeth. [see my girls 3 year old birthday spread here]
Speaking of kids birthday parties, they usually involve kids going NUTS, ignoring parental requests, fighting with each other and general hyperactive behaviour: followed by a crash and sugar hangover the next day.
Have YOU ever tried to quit/cut down sugar? The withdrawals from going without it for the first time are painful, intense, debilitating and stressful.
Now imagine you are THREE years old and experiencing the highs and lows, mood changes and energy crashes. No wonder they throw tantrums!
We are literally teaching our children that in order to have fun, we must have some form of stimulant/drug... Alcoholism anyone?
[This study] is just one example of research exploring childhood sweet preferences priming individuals for alcohol/substance addiction later in life. Not cool.
Step one to get kids eating veggies: kick the sugar. Do it gradually over a few weeks, starting by swapping refined sugars for natural, low GI alternatives like rice malt syrup and real fruit. Remove ALL of the sugar processed foods from the house, so there is no temptation. Expect tantrums and objections but don't give in. They will come around.
2. Fake food: Artificial flavours, flavour enhancers and artificial sweeteners are messing with taste buds, placing unrealistic expectations on the taste real food.
Manufacturers have noticed that we are demanding less sugar in our food. But without sugar to keep people addicted, they are replacing it with artificial flavour enhancers and sweeteners. Things like monosodium glutamate (MSG) and sucralose (splenda) are among the worst additives for your health with a host of 'side effects.'
'If it was made in a lab, it will take a lab to digest' ~Chris Karr
Possibly more sinister however is what artificial additives are doing to our expectations of real food. They are created in labs specifically for pinpoint taste appeal, making us desire them more. Potato chips with MSG as a flavour enhancer are a great example - Pringles taste super amazing and moorish for a reason.
These additives are manipulating our brain chemistry to desire these products and reducing our capacity to taste and appreciate the subtle flavours of real food.
If you have ever gone on a diet, you may have noticed your tolerance for sweet things you previously loved is drastically reduced. Or once you stop covering up the more subtle flavours with sugar, fat and salt, you start to appreciate and find joy in eating whole foods. Start enjoying vegetables you have always 'hated'.
Your kids are exactly the same. Take away the processed food and they will learn to appreciate real food.
Step two to get kids eating veggies: Remove all additives, artificial flavours, enhancers and pre-packaged food. Replace with fruit, nuts & seeds or healthy snacks like gummies, blissballs, nice cream.
Get rid of CEREALS! The breakfast isle is riddled with crap that screams 'eat me!' to our children. A simple bowl of unflavoured oatmeal, chia porridge, healthy pankcakes or smoothies/smoothie bowls are incredible brekky options.
3. Psychology: sugar/junk food are often 'special treats.' Just calling it a treat puts a really positive spin on it, creating long-lasting pleasurable associations.
Why is comfort food usually all the bad things? It comes from childhood programming!
Cakes, lollies, take-away dinners, chocolate etc are all 'special treats' because we know they are unhealthy and should not indulge often. By creating excitement and hype over junk food and sweets with our kids drives their addiction.
Try adding in some special veggies and build hype about them. Eg, I have seen this work with everything from sweet potato to brussel sprouts! Make it a vegetable they have not tried before and serve it to them in a way that makes them excited.
Tips to get your kids eating veggies:
- Get them into the kitchen to help prepare it or even grow some veggies yourself and get them in the garden!
- Emphasise how special the new vegetable is, tell them about how their favourite character loves it (like Popeye and spinach!)
- Prepare it in a way that is appealing. Eg, don't boil the guts out of your broccoli and expect your kids to fall in love with soggy mush.
- Serve vegetables separately, eg instead of mixing a salad all together, put the individual parts on the plate for your kids. (seems weird but it works!)
- Never 'hide' veggies just to get your kids eating them. Of course if you're making something where the veggies are not obvious anyway thats fine, but hiding them never works long term.
- Avoid telling kids that the vegetable is something its not. My parents tried this on me with fish, telling me it was chicken nuggets. I always knew and it made me overly cautious of my plate and made my aversion to seafood stronger. I still can't eat it!
- If your child has a food sensitivity, eg bloats after consuming bread like my girls do - always, always let them know about that connection. Tell them that the bread has hurt their tummy.
- Around Halloween, Easter, Christmas etc when the lollies are laid out thick at the checkouts, I make a point of telling the girls how YUCKY these things are. So far they have parroted it back to me every time and they don't even want to touch the packets, even with the bright colours and cartoons.
Every child is different, these are just the suggestions I have found work with my own girls and children around me. Do you have any suggestions you could add to this list?