So you are sitting at the dinner table and your four-year-old refuses to even take a bite of the roasted broccoli that is being served that night. You take a breath and lightly say, “Ok. Well, if you change your mind the broccoli is here.” Then you try to focus on enjoying your own broccoli in the hopes that modeling an enthusiasm for vegetables will help to change things over time.
The next night the same thing happens with peas. And the night after that with salad.
These days, one of the common themes that often comes up in discussions about how to raise healthy eaters is that we shouldn’t force our kids to eat certain foods because that risks causing deeper issues with food later on. Many argue that even the “you need to try it” rule is a risky undertaking. Instead, we are encouraged to offer the foods in a relaxed manner, over and over again, and prepared in as many ways as possible. Some encourage making the food more fun by decorating it or cutting it into special shapes. But overall, the main messages are: 1) don’t fight with your kids about food and 2) don’t insist that they eat something they don’t want to eat.
I agree with these viewpoints. I really do. And I am a big believer in taking the power struggle out of the equation. But I also think that the reality is that, as a parent, it can be incredibly hard, and even painful, to sit there day after day watching your child refuse to anything green (or yellow or crunchy or creamy or whatever the issue may be in your household). It can be hard to bite your tongue. It can be hard to watch food get wasted. It can be hard to worry about whether or not they are getting the nutrients they need.
I personally have found this to be struggle. I worry about whether my son will get the nutrients he needs to grow. I get frustrated when I see food go to waste. I even sometimes take it personally when the food I have made gets pushed away. For the second two issues here, I have had to learn to just let it go and take my ego out of the dynamic. But the nutrient question I handle differently.
First and foremost, I do follow what the experts recommend and I do not engage in power struggles about what my son does and does not eat. And, for the most part, this approach has been working for us. But on those days when it drives me crazy, I try to tell myself to let it go and I focus on something else, like the conversation we are having or my own food. But despite my best efforts I found that it was still hard on some days to not put the pressure on a little too hard, so I have developed three habits that help me to be more relaxed:
1) I offer at least one fruit and/or a vegetable at every meal and snack. At some meals he won’t eat any of it, at others he will pick at something, and at others he will eat everything put in front of him. By offering over and over I figure that a nibble here and a bite there might add up to something.
2) I try to make multiple dinners a week where vegetables are a main part of the main dish. With my particular kiddo, he is much more likely to eat the vegetables if they are mixed in than if they are on the side, so I try to take advantage of that fact by making casseroles, pastas, fried rice, quesadillas, etc. If he wants to pick out the veggies, so be it, but at least they were there to begin with.
3) I supplement dishes we would eat anyway with vegetables. I blend steamed greens into our pizza sauce on pizza nights. I mix vegetables into baked goods like veggie-packed or sweet potato muffins. I mix chopped up broccoli or peas into macaroni and cheese. Let me be clear on two important points here:
- I do not lie to him about what is in his food. I always offer the food with a full description (i.e., pumpkin waffles or green smoothie).
- I do not lie to myself and tell myself that this is enough to replace what should be in his regular diet.
What this does for me is that it takes the edge off so that I can continue to offer him vegetables in a variety of ways without it being so emotionally loaded.
In the end, I try to remind myself that what I am trying to do is help my children to become healthy, adventurous, happy eaters. I want them to have a strong understanding of what foods nourish their bodies and which ones don’t do such a good job of that. I want them to be able to recognize when they are hungry and eat until they are full, and then stop. But more than anything I want them to enjoy food and love all that food brings with it—community, culture, and new experiences.