Are you sure you don’t want some cauliflower?
A Bite of broccoli?
A carrot drowned in ranch?
If you ask my kids if they eat vegetables, they’ll probably say no. Actually, it’s possible that one kid will tell you about the time he tried a cucumber in Ms. Vivian’s class (1.5 years ago). The other might chime in that he once tasted a bite of his friend Martina’s carrot. If you’re wise enough, you’ll ask him what happened just after, and he’ll be forced to report that he spat said carrot bite out into their classroom sink.
My kids don’t eat vegetables.
Sure, they’ll have some greens if I add them to a smoothie or maybe a a few milligrams of spinach in Amy’s frozen pizza pockets. But they’re almost six and have yet to sit down to a full-on serving of vegetables.
Each year at their physical, their pediatrician asks them if they’re eating vegetables and while they say no, I quickly muster up a response to defuse my experience of broccoli-shaming (for the record, last visit, she did mumble under her breath to me that they could eat rice all day and still be fine). The reality is, they’re perfectly healthy, growing boys. The eat tons of fruit and a variety of nutrients that help them flourish.
Still, I know that I’m “supposed” to be feeding them greens, so why aren’t I forcing (read: strongly encouraging) them to eat vegetables?
1. I choose my battles. There are an infinite number of parenting battles to fight. My kids get a decent amount of vitamins/nutrients from the foods they do eat. I only have so much energy to work with, and there are battles I must fight daily (e.g., bedtime, leaving for school). The fewer the power struggles in parenting, the better.
2. I want them to develop a health relationship with food. As a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, I understand how important early influences can be on how we develop a relationship to food and our bodies. I want my kids to develop an easy, intuitive relationship to food. I want them to see food as something that nourishes them and brings them pleasure, not something forced upon them.
I don’t want them to view food as the enemy.
When we force them to eat certain foods, we’re setting them up to relate to food in a difficult, controlled way. We’re not encouraging the intuitive, flexible mindset that seems to work best with food – whether to minimize the likelihood of disordered eating or just to promote a healthy, happy relationship with food.
3. I actually want them to eat vegetables. Do I hope my kids will incorporate vegetables as they grow? Of course. But if they want to do it in their own time, so be it. It’s possible that if they make this choice, it’ll have greater staying power than something that was forced. Here’s the thing about human behavior: children (adults, too) don’t like being told what to do. In fact, if you force something, it’s possible they’ll double down with their resistance. I offer my children vegetables, but when they refuse, I respect (without judgment) their choices.
4. I want them to experience body autonomy. It’s important to me that my kids feel in control of their bodies. That they get to say no to unwelcome touch, affection, attention, interaction, and yes, that they get to say no to food. We follow Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility for mealtime structure, which suggests that caretakers decide what is served at a meal and when and children decide what they’ll eat (of what is served), how much they’ll eat, or if they’ll eat at all. My allowing them to say no to foods they dislike, consistent with Satter’s approach, allows them to develop and experience body autonomy. If they’re constantly having food forced upon them, it’s possible that they might come to believe that they don’t have total say about what happens to their bodies. This would be an unfortunate, likely dangerous, message for them to internalize.
Again, I wish my kids would eat vegetables. The extra nutrients would be great. But to me, it’s not worth the additional vitamins and fiber to sacrifice the goals I share above. Relatedly, I allow my kids to eat sugar. This, too, I believe will help them develop a healthy relationship with food.
Over the years, I’ve seen countless cases of disordered relationships with food and bodies. I can’t prevent eating disorders in my children, but I can mitigate risk. My parenting philosophy, informed by my professional life, has allowed me to approach the nourishment of my children with purpose. I believe that health goes beyond a collection of nutrients, and I feed my children in a way that targets their well-being more completely.