Inside: This mealtime hack is so simple, but works! If you’re wondering how to get a toddler to eat vegetables, try this first before stressing over family dinners. Perfect for when your kids won’t eat. Disclosure: Post contains affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase, at no extra cost to you, I may earn a small commission.
You know how the story goes, right?
Toddler whines incessantly before dinner about how hungry and thirsty they are. Dinner comes and toddler screams, “YUCK!” and runs around the table singing like a Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelie. Toddler won’t eat. Five minutes after dinner toddler says, “Can I have a snack?”
This was my house every night.
My son’s most famous lines were, “My tummy is hungry for donuts and ice cream. This food won’t work for me.” He also loved to say, “This broccoli is going to make me sick in the toilet.”
He did have some clever arguments. I’ll give him that. But…
There’s a lot of pressure in parenting to figure out how to get a toddler to eat vegetables. Because if your child doesn’t eat vegetables, then you’re probably totally flunking at this parenting thing (ahem). All you have to do is look at that poor mom who accidentally fed her kids “penis-shaped pasta” (it was supposed to be smiley faces) and all the crazy judge-y comments she got on Facebook for being “a horrible mom because there were no vegetables.”
Despite feeling exhausted from all the dinnertime battles and dealing with my kids refusing to eat, I feared asking for help and being mom-shamed (see above). All I wanted was for my kids to eat some vegetables so we could stop fighting about it.
Here’s the other problem.
A good friend once told me, “A hungry child is a child who eats.” There’s a lot of truth in that statement. Hungry kids do eat. However, if my kids are anything like yours, they would sit down to the table, eat all things carbs, and then politely pass on the rest.
And by the “rest” I mean anything that contained nutrients. Kids are fantastic at discerning nutrients. My son could find the most micro green spec in his food to scrape off a vegetable he didn’t like. The same was true of my daughter; she would eat around anything that appeared to be vegetable-based.
There is an easier way.
The statement, “A hungry child is a child who eats,” kept creeping into my mind. I knew there had to be a simple way to make this work. At first, I thought about just putting the vegetables on the plates when starting dinner and telling the kids they had to eat the vegetables before eating anything else.
But then I thought about how long I’d have to sit there bribing and negotiating, and that seemed equally exhausting. Plus, scientific studies prove that bribing your kids to eat certain foods doesn’t help them make healthy food choices in the long term.
How to get a toddler to eat vegetables.
I decided to try a method from Traci Mann, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota. She’s been studying eating habits for more than 20 years, and she says that in order to get your kids to eat vegetables you have to remove the vegetable’s competition.
The strategy is called “get alone with the vegetable.”
Basically what her research shows is that when vegetables are paired with other enticing foods, the vegetable will always lose to the competition. Kids will eat the enticing foods enough to feel satiated, and just like my own kids did, they will push the vegetables aside. By removing the vegetable’s competition altogether, the kids have only one choice to eat — vegetables.
Here’s the secret.
When your kids are nearly biting your ankles off during the pre-dinner hours (this is what I lovingly refer to as, “The Witching Hour”) put a beautiful rainbow of vegetables on the table.
Then I’d say, “You’re so hungry! You need to eat right now. It’s Vegetable Happy Hour! I put some food on the table for you. You can eat anything from the table or you can wait until dinnertime. You get to decide.”
And to my happiest surprise, my kids would walk up to the table munch on a few carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans and sometimes even broccoli in between play. One evening my daughter ate half a bag of carrots! Other days, they eat only one thing or nothing at all. Looking at the big picture, they were eating far more vegetables than before.
Here’s more from Traci Mann on why this works:
To [get kids to eat vegetables], you just eat your vegetable first, before any of the other food is there. Eat them before other food is on your plate, or even at your table. And that way, you get them when you’re hungriest and unable to pick something else instead […]
We’ve actually tested this in a lot of ways. And it works unbelievably well. We tested it with kids in school cafeterias, where it more than quadrupled the amount of vegetables eaten.
It’s just about making it a little harder to make the wrong choices, and a little easier to make the right ones.
But the best part?
When dinner rolled around and I put the food on the table, I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t feel the pressure to get my kids to eat because they already ate the most nutritious stuff. Heck, I was practically running around the table and singing like a Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelie.
(And psst…if you want even more cooperation around the dinnertime, give these printable routine cards a try. Kids do amazing things when they have a visual schedule to show them what to do. Also works great for gaining cooperation with morning and bedtime routines — those are included too in the set)
Want more on parenting?
- 2 Year-Old Not Listening? Try This Remarkable Tip
- What and How Much Should a Toddler Eat?
- 13 Habits That Raise Well-Adjusted Kids
- 3 Things Every Parent of a Strong-Willed Toddler Should Know
- Is Food Causing Depression and Anxiety in Kids? How Food Affects Mood
Another research-proven way to get kids more interested in vegetables is to get them involved with the food before it even hits the table.
After this quick 10 minute basic knife skills and safety class, your kids will be able to join you at the cutting board, no matter their age.
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