I’m just going to come out and say it: Feeding kids is a royal pain in the ass, and people who say that their kids will eat anything they put in front of them are lying liar pants. (OK, I know such kids exist, but I have only met, like, one myself.)
One of the hardest aspects of it all is getting your kids to eat their veggies. Throw anything green on a kid’s plate and all prospects of them eating their meal gets thrown out the window – probably along with the aforementioned green thing.
Or maybe you have a kid who eats their veggies – at least sometimes. But predicting the when, how, and why of it can be confusing and frustrating.
Why is it so hard for kids to eat their damn veggies? Well, I imagine there are a million reasons, including how the veggies look and taste, what mood your kid is in, and what associations they have with the particular vegetable. But one of the biggest reasons that kids don’t eat their vegetables is totally fascinating and makes a ton of sense when you think about it.
According to a study from researchers at Texas A&M University, one of the main reasons kids refuse their veggies has to do with the age-old game of competition. The idea is that when you throw a couple of vegetables on the same plate with something like chicken nuggets or spaghetti, the non-veggie item will always win. Kids will pick the more tantalizing food first, chow down, and then basically ignore or shun their veggies.
The research analyzed the eating habits of 8,500 kids getting school lunch. In 2013, the USDA updated its nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program so now all students are required to have a veggie on their plate at all times. Noting that even with this requirement, most students just tossed the veggie and veggie consumption wasn’t really increasing, the researchers were aiming to find out why.
“After analyzing plate waste data from nearly 8,500 students, it seems there’s at least one variable that tends to affect whether kids eat their broccoli, spinach or green beans more than anything: what else is on the plate,” explains The Washington Post, in an article about the study.
“Kids, in short, are much more likely to eat their vegetable portion when it’s paired with a food that isn’t so delicious it gets all the attention,” they say.
In all honestly, who can blame them? We adults would likely just eat the mac n’ cheese or french fries over the veggies – if we could. But unlike kids, we’ve developed the impulse control to make healthier choices (at least most of the time).
The good news is that there may be a solution to all this vegetable shunning. It all has to do with a brilliant idea from Traci Mann, a psychology instructor from the University of Minnesota. In an interview with The Washington Post, Mann lays out a strategy she refers to as “get alone with a vegetable.”
Basically, the idea is that rather than serving veggies alongside other goodies, serve veggies on their own – perhaps as appetizers or snacks – separate from mealtimes.
“Normally, vegetables will lose the competition that they’re in — the competition with all the other delicious food on your plate,” says Mann. “This strategy puts vegetables in a competition they can win, by pitting vegetables against no food at all.”
So, says Mann, you eat your vegetables first, before you eat anything else. “[T]hat way,” she says, “you get them when you’re hungriest and unable to pick something else instead.”
YES. YES. YES. How did we not think of this?
Mann says she and her colleagues have actually tested this method and it works. “We tested it with kids in school cafeterias, where it more than quadrupled the amount of vegetables eaten,” she says. Amazing.
Without really thinking about it, I actually have done this with my kids at times. My 6-year-old generally eats his veggies at snack times (not always right before a meal, but just whenever). He’s a sucker for a plate of carrots and cucumbers. And he’ll finish off a bowl of broccoli when he gets home from school (yes, really).
But if I present the same veggies to him with his buttered noodles, they are ignored most of the time.
So if you are struggling with a picky veggie eater (don’t worry: you are not alone), this trick is something to have up your sleeve. I can’t guarantee it will work – I have a tween who would laugh in my face if I presented him with a “snack” of string beans – but it’s definitely worth a try.
Because let’s face it: feeding our kids is never going to be a walk in the park. We need to do whatever it takes to keep them healthy and fed – and to save our sanity in the process.