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Why you shouldn't force kids to eat their greens

Make vegies routine with a pressure-free approach that shows faith in the child, says nutritionist Jennifer Bowden.

QUESTION: Both my children leave their vegetables until last at dinner time and then say they’re too full to finish them. I don’t want them to eat more than they need, but how do I encourage them to eat their greens?

ANSWER: It’s time to ditch short-term thinking and instead play the long game when it comes to creating healthy eating habits in our children.

Although it might seem impossible in the midst of broccoli battles and cruciferous conflicts at dinner time each night, it’s better to lose the battle but win the war. The long-term goal is for children to enjoy eating a wide variety of nutritious food when they leave home as young adults.

The best way to do this is by respecting the autonomy of children in determining how much of the food you provide they want to eat, as outlined in the division of responsibility (DoR) model developed by US registered dietitian, feeding expert and bestselling author Ellyn Satter.

The DoR is considered internationally to be the gold standard for feeding children. It encourages parents to take leadership with the what, when and where of feeding, while allowing the child to determine how much to eat of what you provide.This gently encourages them to learn good eating habits.

The goal of the DoR is to teach children to enjoy vegetables over their lifetime. The model encourages an unpressured environment for children to learn how and when nutritious food is included in meals and snacks. They watch you prepare it, but face no pressure to eat it.

Ellyn Satter. Photo/Supplied

Creating that fuss-free environment is crucial, because although in the 1970s and 1980s it was common to bribe or reward your kids for eating their vegetables, we now know that children who are cajoled, bribed and forced into eating certain foods invariably end up not liking them, and are less likely to eat them when left to their own devices in later years.

This is a fact I can attest to, given the apple-crumble rewards I received to eat those dastardly peas as a child. I still avoid peas some 30 years after the dessert bribes (and my Mum will be so annoyed I brought this up. Again.)

The fact is, we know better now, and we ought to do better. Parents should ideally create a good routine of set snack and mealtimes and ensure these are sit-down occasions with food served on a plate and no distractions, such as television or phones, present. Do stay flexible and ensure you accommodate changes in appetite resulting from growth spurts or increased energy needs.

Yes, you’d like your child to eat vegetables at dinner time, but the world won’t end if they don’t.

Remember, you can also offer vegetables at snack time in a different format, such as carrot sticks with a tasty dip, or sweet cherry tomatoes with cheese and crackers. Try it out as an after-school snack when they’re famished. Or blend vegetables into main dishes – grated carrot in mince, tomato-based sauces on pasta, roasted vegies with a weekend roast meal.

Getting children to eat their vegetables isn’t the goal. Rather, it’s creating a harmonious relationship with food. That requires trust in yourself and your child and remembering to play the long game.

This article was first published in the August 24, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.