Should parents force veggies? (Also known as “Am I wasting my energy at dinner?”)


Two years ago, when my older son was about two and a half years old, I was proud of the fact that he ate whatever I put in front of him for dinner each night. He happily tried everything, and he rarely complained that he didn’t like what I’d prepared. I gloated about this regularly. “Oh, my son? Oh yes, he eats whatever I put in front of him! That’s just the rule in our house!” HA. Then karma got me, and he decided that at four, he’d go on a major food strike, limiting his palate to just a few choice foods, with green beans being the only “acceptable” vegetable.

An example of an "acceptable lunch": grilled cheese on wheat fish-shaped bread, ketchup, and grapes. Sigh.
An example of an “acceptable lunch”: grilled cheese on wheat fish-shaped bread, ketchup, and grapes. Sigh.

Could I simply state that dinner was whatever I decided it would be and insist that he eat it or starve? Yep. But I value my 8:15-11:15 p.m. hours when the kids are fast asleep and I get some much-needed downtime, and as I quickly learned, hungry kids don’t sleep. Plus, I really was tired of ending each day with a massive tantrum from an overtired child who was certain that my lasagna might actually kill him. So I instituted the “this-or-a-peanut-butter-sandwich” rule– he could eat what I served, or he could make himself peanut butter on wheat bread with a glass of milk. Surely he’d tire of peanut butter sandwiches, right?! So far, not really, but at least he sleeps with a full tummy and no tantrums…a half-victory, I guess.

I recently came across this article from NPR entitled “Selling Kids On Veggies When Rules Like ‘Clean Your Plate’ Fail” which made me feel a little better about my situation. This article discusses the benefits of just relaxing when it comes to the preschool food battles. Parents should simply offer healthy choices, and avoid freaking out if their kids refuse to finish. I have often used dessert as a pawn, even though I know I shouldn’t do so, firmly stating that “If you don’t eat your carrots you will NOT be having a cookie.” This is something I vow to stop doing. According to this article, “By demanding that children eat things like vegetables before they have a dessert, it makes it seem like there’s something wrong with eating vegetables, and that you have to swallow medicine before you get to the good part.” Oops. This makes a whole lot of sense to me. The article suggests simply offering only healthy choices and not making a big fuss over forcing kids to eat everything you put on their plate.

Our new mantra at dinner is, as suggested by the article, “Just taste it, and if you don’t like it, that’s fine.” We are also focusing on having healthier options in general and consuming more veggies ourselves, since kids really are watching and learning from their parents. Will this make a difference? I’m hopeful. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about preschoolers and toddlers, it’s that they see what pushes their parents’ buttons quickly, and they’re not afraid to use this knowledge as a weapon. Maybe if dinner is no longer a fight we can go back to just battling over baths, clean up, and bedtime. 🙂

16 comments on “Should parents force veggies? (Also known as “Am I wasting my energy at dinner?”)”

  1. Great post. You’re not alone! Take a look at my post Just Eat It from January. The reader comments offered some GREAT suggestions. I’m dying to try the blind-folded taste test!

    1. Yes! We are going to try this one! Have you tried it?? I’m interested to see if Nate would even do it. I see the blindfold flying off over here hahahahaa. I may have to start with just things I know he likes first!

  2. This was a lesson I learned too! Now I figure “if it’s in the house, it’s okay to eat…whenever.”

    1. I’m trying realllllly hard to adopt that same attitude!! 🙂 I think a big part of it is I have to only buy things I’m ok with them eating anytime…which would be better for all of us really, not just them!

  3. I gave up a long time ago on catering to the VERY DIFFERENT tastes of my kids (my girl likes sweets and sours, my boy likes rich and hearty) – I was becoming a short order cook and dinnertime was miserable. I decided I didn’t have the time or energy to sweat it, and if they don’t eat what I feed them at dinner, they don’t eat. My husband thinks I’m cruel but I am a lot less stressed because of it.

    I know I refer to the “twin experience” a bit too much, but one thing that having twins has taught me is that eating habits – i.e. picky eaters – are personality-based and not always a function of what you as a parent do. My kids have been eating the same exact thing as each other in the same setting at the same time since birth. My boy will (and always has) eat a little of everything I give him. My girl eats only the things that she likes and complains “Not this” for the stuff she doesn’t like or recognize (and often throws it to the dog). I’ve never treated them differently when it comes to food and yet I have one very picky eater and one very easy eater. I’m convinced it’s just a personality thing.

    My son does surprise me when it comes to food. By fluke, we discovered that he loves lettuce, especially when it’s covered with something (Italian dressing is his favorite). We also discovered that he will eat bitter Chinese vegetables, chicken feet (GROSS) and smoked salmon. I’m waiting for the day that my girl surprises me by eating something that I don’t expect her to eat.

    My point is, don’t beat yourself up too much about feeding your kids. Just try to instill good eating habits – the rest is really up to them.

    1. Wow- that is really interesting that their tastes are so different! Awhile back I read that around 3-4 years old kids become pickier because evolutionarily, that’s when they’d begin to find their OWN food in the wild– berries and nuts and maybe mushrooms– and if they weren’t very selective, they’d likely eat something poisonous. It is supposed to pass as they get a bit older…but that doesn’t change how incredibly frustrating it is to see your kid just not eat something you prepared for him or her. It really is up to them though…

  4. the *best* book I have ever read about kids and eating is Ellyn Satter’s “How to get your kids to eat: but not too much.” I highly recommend it for anyone that’s having food battles with their kid (and really, who isn’t?). Basic ideas: give an assortment of foods that you are okay with them eating at any given meal (including dessert), and let them choose what and how much to eat of any given thing. Do not make it a battle of wills – the kid will win. And, of course, model good eating and let kids help prepare the food. (Of course, I have the toddler described above in the post who “will eat anything” – and am girding myself for the day that changes!)

    1. Thank you SO MUCH for the book recommendation! I will definitely check that out! I love hearing about helpful books on parenting topics. Maybe you’ll luck out and your toddler will continue to eat anything- keep hoping!! Positive thinking! 🙂 I never would have believed mine would stop…but I keep telling myself there are NO college guys who live on only PB&J…right?! It has to pass eventually…

  5. I had heard that story on NPR and it was a bit validating that I’m doing the right thing by not allowing food to be a battle. BUT…I still lord the treat (which in our case is usually dried fruit) over their heads. Maybe I should put it on the plate with the veggies and see what happens. We’ve had a lot of success with just introducing the veggies at dinner. Our oldest has gotten more adventurous that way. WE also had a lot of success going to the farmer’s market weekly last summer. When Lovey made friends with the people who grew her veggies she was more willing to try them!

    1. Cora- I agree that the fruits and veggies are much easier to sell in the nice weather from a farmer’s market, or even better, pick-your-own places. We are planting a big veggie garden this summer, and this is one of the many reasons for it. I’m going to try really hard to let go of the “You didn’t eat enough dinner to earn a dessert”…

  6. Oh man I relate and Lills isn’t even two yet! We had been putting dessert on the plate with her dinner because our pedi said to be careful of making desserts a special thing – that doing that can lead to issues with food down the road. We were really good at it until recently when we started once again saying, Lillian if you don’t eat more dinner you won’t get a cookie. We noticed we reverted back to that and are trying to be OK with putting the cookie right on the plate with her veggies and protien. It goes against what we were taught growing up but I think that’s a good thing…

    1. I read this somewhere too … that dessert should never be offered as a reward or withheld as a punishment … that it is something that is simply offered as part of the meal, or not, just depending on the day and completely up to the parents. That way kids don’t see dessert as a prize, it’s just another food. This same source also remarked that treats shouldn’t be used outside of meal time as a reward for cleaning your room or whatnot — it can be a snack or not, and that’s it. This has also helped me remind myself not to reward myself (for doing the dishes, for getting bills paid, etc.) with chocolate!

      1. Melanie- yes! I have read this too, and you’d think that would stop me, but it hasn’t!! I still hold dessert over their heads all the time, and I need to stop. And you made me realize this is so instilled in my that i really do reward myself with food, too! I definitely “let” myself have chocolate and Starbucks as rewards for hard work. Interestingly, though, I’m less likely to eat unhealthy things if I recently worked out, as I don’t want to undo the good i’ve done. Vicious cycle!

    2. Michelle- I’ve said that SO MANY TIMES, knowing full-well that I shouldn’t. And it ALWAYS backfires. They will eat just what they have to, act like it’s killing them, then eat the cookie. I’m going to try really, really hard to not make dessert a “forbidden fruit” situation and hope it eventually helps. I feel like I have a lot of “undoing” of my mistakes here to do…ugh.

  7. About a year ago I saw a similar article about not forcing kids to eat their vegs but offer them healthy choices and let them pick. Not only does it make dinner much easier, teach them vegs are not bad, but teaches them to eat what they want when they are hungry. Forcing them to eat teaches them they need to what’s in front of them no matter if they are hungry or not, letting them control what they eat and how much from what they are offered teaches them to eat till they are full and that’s it. We have been doing this, those it’s hard when she only wants the mashed potatoes on her plate and nothing else, but have seen her try new things, but some nights she eats some of everything (including vegs) and some nights not.

    1. Yes- the psychology behind NOT teaching someone to eat when he or she isn’t even hungry or hates the food does make sense. It’s really hard to just let that go sometimes though!!

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