Right now, mealtimes with your toddler might make you feel like you’re living in medieval times. Your royal toddler sits on the throne while you, the court jester, desperately try to get her to eat her food. Spoons are dropped, food flies past your head, and you start to wonder if you’re cut out for this position.
But fear not. At this age, food rejection – especially of vegetables – is pretty standard behavior for toddlers. If it’s happening in your dining room, there are a few ways you can regain control of the court.
Know that this is a healthy developmental stage
Every day, toddlers get a better understanding of the world around them, and over time they start to crave more independence. Toddlers don’t have a lot of outlets besides eating and sleeping, though, which is where picky eating comes in.
It doesn’t matter if your toddler loved vegetables last week or even earlier this afternoon. She is probably going to resist a lot of food at this age, and this is especially true for vegetables. Let’s face it: vegetables just aren’t as tasty as a lot of other foods – and some research suggests that toddlers may have evolutionary reasons to avoid the bitter flavors they get from vegetables. Accepting that picky eating is a normal part of toddler development can take a lot of pressure off both of you during mealtimes. It may also make it easier for you to refocus and come up with and different possible solutions.
Practice M.V.E. (Multiple Vegetable Exposure)
Even if your toddler doesn’t want to eat a vegetable one night, don’t assume that you should cross it off the shopping list for the rest of eternity. Research shows that children are more likely to end up liking a food if they’ve already seen it and tasted it a number of times – sometimes as many as 15. As much as your toddler might put up a fuss, each time you serve the vegetable, she may get a little bit closer to liking it.
Resist the urge to force or bribe
Begging, bribing, or demanding that your toddler eats her vegetables will backfire in the long run. It puts a lot of pressure on her to do something that should come naturally in the long run. Plus, toddlers are smart. They know that if their parents are pressuring or bribing them to do something, it’s probably unpleasant. So for now, try to go with the flow and pretend that eating vegetables isn’t that big of a big deal. After all, even getting your toddler to try one bite now exposes her to the flavor, which can help it seem more familiar, and maybe even less unwanted, at other meals in the future.
Appeal to your toddler’s creative side
They may be nutritional powerhouses, but most vegetables don’t have the same visual appeal as brightly colored fruits like pineapple, peaches, and blueberries. At this point your toddler might be able to spot a green vegetable coming from a mile away, and probably knows all their names, too. Consider making mealtime more fun by arranging foods in unique ways, and mixing colorful foods with less-colorful ones. One study found that children ate more vegetables when the vegetables had fun names, like “olly-olly-oxen-peas” or “X-ray vision carrots.”
Are you a bad influence?
One final thing to keep in mind is what kind of impact you’ve made on your toddler. Do you eat the vegetables that you serve at mealtime? Showing her a vegetable-eating example increases the likelihood that she will eat them, too. Do you tell your toddler she is not done until all her vegetables are gone? Encouraging your toddler to finish her plate is helpful, but making her finish her vegetables enforces the idea that vegetables are something to be suffered through, not enjoyed. Be mindful of how you approach the idea of eating vegetables with your toddler, because she could be picking up on some cues that you didn’t know you were sending out.
Teaching your toddler to eat all kinds of fruits and vegetables can be difficult at first. It takes a lot of work to get a fussy eater to finish a plate of vegetables. But as long as you’re patient, you and your toddler will eventually get to a place where vegetables aren’t a royal pain.
“My Toddler Hates Vegetables, What Can I Do?” KidsHealth. Nemours Foundation, Nov 2014. Web.
Gwen Dewar. “Cure for a picky eater: Evidence-based tips for getting kids to eat good foods.” ParentingScience. Gwen Dewar, PhD., 2013. Web.
B. Wansink, DR Just, CR Payne, MZ Klinger. “Attractive names sustain increased vegetable intake in schools.” Preventive Medicine. 55(4):330-2. Oct 2012. Web.
Samantha J. Caton, Pam Blundell, Sara M. Ahern, Chandani Nekitsing, Annemarie Olsen, Per Møller, Helene Hausner, Eloïse Remy, Sophie Nicklaus, Claire Chabanet, Sylvie Issanchou, and Marion M. Hetherington. “Learning to Eat Vegetables in Early Life: The Role of Timing, Age and Individual Eating Traits. Public Library of Science. 9(5): e97609. May 30 2014. Web.