Why Your Kid Doesn't Eat Enough Vegetables

If you're fed up with the fact that your kid barely takes a bite of vegetables, our expert advice will turn your frustration into inspiration.
Tara Donne

Kim Earl packs baby carrots in 5-year-old Annabelle's lunch box every day—and they always come home unopened. At dinner, her daughter makes a face and turns her head when she spots broccoli or green beans on the table. "Annabelle used to like these vegetables, so I keep hoping that she'll try them again," says Earl, of Brooklyn, New York. "But I'm starting to lose my will. Lately, she'll only eat a few bites here and there. It's a waste of time and food!"

Can you relate? Nine out of ten children fall short of the government's recommended veggie goals for kids.

And white potatoes (including chips and fries) and tomatoes (they're fruit, people!) make up more than half of the total "vegetables" eaten by 4- to 8-year-olds, according to a report from the National Institutes of Health. Kids this age try so few dark-green veggies that researchers rounded their average intake to zero. Despite billions of dollars devoted to nutrition education and school lunch improvements, veggie consumption among children ages 2 to 11 stayed the same between 2003 and 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kids wind up with less than half of the amount experts say they need, regardless of their race or parents' income level. Getting to that point is hardly a piece of cake: When Parents polled more than 400 readers with children ages 2 to 10, 30 percent admitted that it's tougher to convince their kids to eat veggies than to clean up their toys.

It's a bummer that the least-liked category of foods is potentially the healthiest one of all. Nearly 20 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds are obese, and the fiber and low calorie content of veggies helps kids maintain a normal weight. Their vitamins and unique plant compounds may play a role in both preventing and managing childhood asthma, and the benefits reach epic levels when you look ahead. Produce may ward off high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers in adults, according to a review of studies by the German Nutrition Society. "If you help your child learn to like vegetables now, you're investing in her health for a lifetime," says Elizabeth Pivonka, Ph.D., R.D., president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, in Hockessin, Delaware. "There's no substitute for having vegetables in your child's diet."

Even fruit—which, thank goodness, kids are eating more often—doesn't offer all of the same advantages. For example, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cabbage are rich sources of the phytonutrient sulforaphane, which may inhibit breast-cancer stem cells, according to research from the University of Michigan. That compound is exclusive to vegetables. "We've done a disservice to parents by grouping fruits and vegetables together when we talk about their health benefits," says Parents advisor Connie Diekman, R.D., past president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Children need both, and we haven't done a good job of conveying that message."

This is the perfect time of year to tackle the veggie challenge in your home. In the first installment of our three-part series, we shed light on the reasons you haven't gained more ground despite how hard you may have tried. Compelling research and fresh strategies will motivate you to dangle the carrot again—and this time we hope your kid will bite.

The Heart of the Matter

When you're cleaning up the mashed sweet potatoes your toddler rejected and threw across the room or dumping your kid's red-pepper sticks in the trash, you probably feel just like Sophia Kohlberg, of Flushing, New York. "My boys, ages 2 and 4, are lucky if they get half a serving of veggies daily, and even getting them to eat that paltry amount is a constant struggle," she says. "Sometimes I wonder why I just don't give up for now and try again when the kids are a little older."

The most powerful reason to hang in there despite your well-justified frustration: What your child eats now will make an enormous difference in his adult health.

When scientists in Finland tracked the diets of more than 2,000 kids, ages 3 to 18, through adulthood, they found that the kids who ate vegetables every day or almost every day had a lower risk of high triglyceride levels and high blood pressure when they grew up.

Plus, these children also had a lower chance of developing metabolic syndrome—a cluster of conditions that substantially raises the odds of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes—as they aged. "When we considered how many vegetables they ate as adults, the additional beneficial effect from childhood remained," explains lead researcher Paula Jääskeläinen. "Increasing your vegetable intake when you're 30 or 40 years old doesn't make up for not eating them when you're 6 or 8."

The research of preventive cardiologist Michael D. Miedema, M.D., M.P.H., of the Minneapolis Heart Institute, helps show why broccoli- loving kids have a healthier heart. He compared the amount of produce eaten by late teens and twenty- somethings to the levels of artery- clogging plaque found on their CT scan two decades later. "The participants who ate the least produce had a 40 percent higher risk of plaque," says Dr. Miedema.

And a study from Children's Mercy, in Kansas City, Missouri, suggests that plaque could start forming before your child even graduates from kindergarten. Researchers found that obese children as young as age 6 had thicker-than-normal carotid arteries, indicating an interference with blood flow. "The condition of your arteries is more important than your age when it comes to developing heart disease and stroke," says study author Geetha Raghuveer, M.D. "Some of the children in our study had arteries similar to those of a 40-year-old."

Adventurous Baby, Choosy Child

Asking for a big bowl of peas at breakfast time isn't a typical request from a 1-year-old, but Jennifer Law happily obliged her daughter, Alexandra, every morning. "I thought we had it made—and that she'd never be picky," says Law, of Springfield, New Jersey. "Then, around her third birthday, she suddenly went from being a kid who ate everything to a kid who tried nothing."

As Law found, many babies and young toddlers eat veggies with gusto. Six- to 11-month-olds typically gobble up about 3 ounces of them daily, which is plenty for their size, according to Nestlé's Nutrition Institute's landmark Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study. But shortly after their first birthday, kids start rejecting sweet potatoes, carrots, and squash, and beg for—you guessed it—French fries. "It's not only the quality of the vegetables that takes a turn for the worse, it's the quantity too," says Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., Guthrie Chair of nutritional sciences at Penn State University and coauthor of The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet. Toddlers and preschoolers eat 25 percent fewer vegetables than babies do despite the fact that they need significantly more based on their size.

You can blame the sealed lips, turned head, and grumpy expression on evolution. Once kids reach about 18 months to 2 years old, many develop food neophobia, a rejection of unfamiliar foods because of fear. Even the foods they used to enjoy may be on the chopping block too. "Toddlers naturally reject bitter- tasting foods to avoid eating something poisonous," says Dr. Rolls. Although they may start loathing any food, vegetables take the biggest hit, accounting for more than half of the foods that little kids refused in one study at the University of Utah.

One of the best ways to battle against bitterness is by roasting vegetables. In our Parents poll, more than a third of moms reported that doing so makes their child more likely to eat what's on his plate. Help avoid texture-related refusals by gradually making purees more lumpy and then introducing small bits of soft cooked vegetables so the change isn't as dramatic.

At the same time, try to reduce your young child's exposure to junk food, which starts changing his palate to prefer sweeter and saltier fare. Lisa Duarte thinks that's what happened in her household. "My husband and I started giving our son cookies when he was about 12 months old and now, at age 3, he doesn't like any veggies," says Duarte, of Springfield, New Jersey. "Our 7-year-old daughter, on the other hand, had a dairy allergy and couldn't have most brands of junk food or sweets, and she eats almost every kind of vegetable."

Watch as Parents contributor Jenna Helwig shares her tips and tricks for roasting.

Trying Too Hard

If your kid starts fussing about the green stuff on his plate, do you tell her that she has to eat some of her veggies to get dessert? "In the long run, that strategy usually backfires," says Dr. Rolls. "It reinforces your child's belief that vegetables are yucky." Think about it: Who bribes you to do something fun?

Talking up the health benefits repels kids too. When you say something as simple as, 'I'm eating this salad because it's good for me,' you hint to your child that it doesn't taste all that great. Case in point: In a study at Northwestern University and The University of Chicago, 3- to 5-year-olds ate fewer crackers when they were described as healthy rather than tasty. Even though it may drive you crazy that your kid refuses vegetables, hide your exasperation and play it cool. 

That's how Katie Walkley, of Mount Jackson, Virginia, has gotten her 4-year-old daughter, Penny, to try new vegetables. "She saw my husband and me eating collard greens and brussels sprouts and wanted to try some too," says Walkley. "She'll often point out if a food is one that all three of us like."

Lunchroom Lessons

As kids get older, they can consume up to half of their total calories for the day at school. While the new school-lunch requirements and salad bars in cafeterias expose kids to more vegetables, there's another hurdle. "By this age, it's not good enough that your kids eat veggies at home -- they have to do it when you're not watching," says Susan Gross, Ph.D., assistant scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. For the most part, that's not happening: While two thirds of 6- to 8-year-olds took vegetables from the lunch line in their school cafeteria, most of them just ate a few bites.

Changing the timing of recess may help students get beyond just a nibble. Elementary-school kids who have an earlier recess eat 54 percent more produce than students who have recess after lunch, according to research from Cornell University. "Those students are in such a hurry to play that they don't finish—or even touch—their food," says study coauthor David Just, Ph.D.

When kids have a later lunch, they're also likely to have a bigger appetite. Sarah Cates, of Clarksburg, Maryland, says when her 2-year-old is hungry, she'll eat cabbage or kale. So there's hope! "While it's going to be a challenge, persistence will pay off for you," says Dr. Rolls. Next month, we'll share savvy cooking strategies to make any veggie irresistible even for picky eaters.

Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Parents magazine.

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