Ask the Nutritionist: Help! My Son Won't Eat Veggies!

My 7 year old son eats NO veggies, and hasn't since he threw up all his peas and his dinner in Kindergarten. I tried smoothies, raw carrots and edamame, which he refused and then puked up. It's all drama and a gag reflex, and incredibly hard not to be so mad, yell, etc. I obviously did something wrong when he was little, and now I am stuck. Any book suggestions, or advice would be much appreciated : ) Thank you!

I *totally* know what you mean! When my daughter was around 6 or 7 months old, a well-meaning babysitter gave her spoonful after spoonful of avocado (one of the few solid foods I had introduced to her at that time) until she threw them up. For a long time, she wouldn’t touch avocados. But she did eat other vegetables and fruits and generally had a balanced diet so I didn’t push it.

My best advice to you is: relax. What your son is doing is totally normal for kids his age. It doesn’t sound as though he has any swallowing problems, since you’ve introduced all kinds of tastes and textures, and it’s only vegetables he’s refusing. If you really want to be sure you can ask your MD for a referral to a therapist specializing in swallowing issues. What you have here is a classic case of a power struggle. The more you pressure, the more he will rebel, and the more he rebels the more frustrated you get…and the result is an out-of-control spiral.

Here’s how to get you and your family back on track: know your roles. According to Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibilities (www.ellynsatter.com), it is a parent’s job to provide what, when and where to eat. It is the child’s job to decide how much and – yes – whether to eat.  That is all. As a parent, don’t pressure, cajole, beg, barter or fight. Don’t give in to demands to fix something else just so he’ll eat something, nor give a snack later when he might be hungry after forgoing a meal. Calmly serve a plate, keep your eyes on your own plate, and when dinner is over, clear the plates.

Easier said than done, I know. But bite your tongue, stay strong, and trust that he will go back to exploring and perhaps accepting vegetables as part of his diet. According to experts, it takes anywhere from 8-20 exposures to a food before a person accepts it (notice that I didn’t say “like” it – but rather tries it and makes a firm decision about whether the food is something they will eat or something they truly do not like). Other tips that help increase acceptance of a food:

  • Serve the same food in different ways. Perhaps he hates raw baby carrots but likes cooked round carrot slices, or julienned carrots in salads.
  • Serve it with something he likes. Maybe mashed potatoes aren’t so bad when they’re on a plate next to slices of lean flank steak.
  • Be liberal with toppings, sauces and sides. Broccoli alone may be “meh” to your son, but topped with melted 2% cheddar cheese or dipped in ranch dressing – yeah!
  • Be a role model yourself. All of your efforts may be thwarted if your spouse or another person your son looks up to refuses to eat his or her vegetables – or worse – badmouths vegetables and calls them “yucky.”

I personally am opposed to “hiding” vegetables in foods, since it only reinforces the notion that vegetables need to be endured and not enjoyed. But if you’re really concerned about the quality of your child’s diet, and if he isn’t getting adequate vitamins and fiber from fruits or other healthy foods, then incorporating vegetables into cooked foods is an OK option. One of the reasons I like Mom Made Foods is that while the veggies are baked into the munchies and sides, you can also see the individual veggies (the peas in the Cheesy Mac) and taste the distinct flavors (like celery in the Turkey Meatballs).

For what it’s worth, I think you’re doing all the right things by being so concerned about your son’s health and nutrition!

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