When evening falls and Mother, Father and Child gather around the dinner table, they form a tranquil portrait of family harmony.
Plates are passed and dishes are served. Everyone inhales the savory aromas and waits expectantly for the meal to begin.
Then the child notices some small objects on her plate. They’re round, wrinkled and green. They’re peas!
What happens next is not pretty.
The parents try threats, guilt and cajolery to make the child eat. They may even humiliate themselves, eating the peas with exaggerated, lip-smacking gusto to show how yummy they are. In the end, someone usually is in tears--and it’s not necessarily the child.
When it comes to peas and other vegetables, it’s safe to say, dinner time often degenerates into domestic Sturm und Drang.
What is it about kids and vegetables, anyway? Why do they spurn broccoli and crave cookies? Is there anything parents can do to get them to eat the right thing?
These are questions that have haunted parents for generations. As long ago as the 1930s, Chicago pediatrician Clara Davis was experimenting with various feeding regimens to learn more about kids’ eating habits. These concerns take on added urgency with the awareness that a diet high in fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Researchers now agree that the roots of the problem lie in our biological inheritance.
“Kids, like the rest of us, and other omnivorous species, are pretty neophobic--kids don’t like to try new things,” says Leann Birch, a professor of human development and nutritional sciences at Penn State University.
So kids, especially toddlers, are wary of unfamiliar flavors and textures in their food and may refuse a new vegetable. “Lots of times, parents interpret that initial rejection as a fixed, immutable dislike,” Birch says.
But research shows, “With increased exposure, a lot of things that are initially rejected will be accepted,” Birch says. “The bad news is, it takes 10 or 15 exposures.”
If a parent can last that long.
Birch, who studies how children develop food preferences, says many attempts at getting kids to eat vegetables fail because parents don’t address the reason for the rejection.
“Kids’ food-acceptance patterns are incredibly malleable,” she asserts. “If you work hard enough, you can get them to eat anything.”
Elisabeth Schafer, professor of human nutrition at Iowa State University, cites flavor as an obvious reason why kids and veggies don’t mix.
“Most vegetables tend to have a fairly strong flavor that tastes even stronger to children than it does to adults,” she says. That’s because kids’ sense of taste is more acute than adults’.
Sociology is a factor, too. “Interactions within the family are a very powerful determinant of food aversions,” she says. “The children watch what their parents eat. They pick up both verbal and nonverbal cues at mealtimes.”
The result: If parents don’t eat vegetables, it’s unlikely the kids will.
“We need to make vegetables glamorous and interesting, and we need to have them available,” says Schafer, who’s writing a book on desserts made with vegetables.
Rick and Anne McGuire, free-lance medical writers living in Mission Hills, have a miracle child. Their 3-year-old son, Aaron, loves vegetables--even mushrooms and beets.
Aaron, like his parents, is a lacto-ovo vegetarian (they eat eggs and dairy products). Because he’s been offered good food all his life, Aaron doesn’t crave junk.
“It’s a somewhat surreal experience to be in the grocery store and the things he is grabbing are not Ding-Dongs and Hostess Twinkies, but apples,” Rick McGuire marvels.
“He doesn’t seem to have a major sweet tooth,” he adds. “If you say ‘cake,’ his face will light up like a Christmas tree, but he only takes one or two bites and he’s finished.”
McGuire and his wife have always been careful about what food they have in the house. A box of cookies is about as dangerous as it gets.
“I have to wonder if parents accidentally undermine their own goals by giving the kids access to junk food,” he muses. After all, “If you don’t expose them to it, they don’t know it’s a choice.”
The couple have avoided dinner-time hassles with Aaron by not making a big deal over what he eats.
“We don’t sit down and say, ‘You must eat everything on your plate,’ ” McGuire says. “Some days he eats very little, and a few days later it’s growth-spurt time and he eats everything.”
The McGuires’ easygoing approach is endorsed by Ellyn Satter, a Madison, Wis., family therapist who specializes in eating problems. Trained as both a registered dietitian and clinical social worker, Satter wrote the 1987 book “How to Get Your Kids to Eat.”
She recommends resolving food conflicts by defining zones of responsibility.
“The parent’s responsibility is for what, when and where,” Satter says. “The child’s responsibility is for what and how much.”
Translated, that means it’s a parent’s job to select and prepare healthy foods and determine where dinner will be served. It’s also up to parents to limit access to snacks and junk foods.
“Once you’ve done that,” she says, “you turn it over to the child to decide what and how much to eat.” Satter field-tested her recommendations while raising her three children, the youngest of whom is 21. “Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned from them,” she says.
When getting kids to eat vegetables, Satter says repetition is important. Children should be offered a small portion even if they’re not interested at first.
Sometimes, of course, vegetables are rejected because they’re facing unfair competition--from a tasty entree or dessert. Satter has a strategy for this as well.
“The parents put the dessert on the table with the rest of the meal,” she says. “That way, the child can eat the dessert when he or she wants to. Often, they’ll eat it first and discover they’re still hungry afterward.”
Satter acknowledges that parents must sort through contradictory messages in planning their children’s diet.
While they’re told to relax and not make an issue out of it on the one hand, on the other, they hear gloomy reports about Americans’ terrible nutrition.
Nutritionists now recommend three servings of vegetables a day, but most adults average only one.
It’s not surprising that some parents wind up being too controlling, while others are too lax, allowing kids to gorge on empty calories.
The key is to allow the child to make choices, but to restrict the range of choices to vegetables and other healthy foods.
Research has consistently shown that, left to their own devices, children will eat enough of the right foods to ensure good nutrition, Satter says.
“If all else fails, you can give the child a vitamin pill while you’re waiting for the child to start eating.”
Satter is convinced that good eating habits in childhood carry through to adult life.
“During the teen years (children) experiment as much with food as they do with everything else, but they go back to the family eating style,” she says.
This is true even when the family eating style is poor.
“I have worked with people in their mid-20s who will only eat peanut butter, bread, milk and orange juice,” Satter says. “It’s as much of an eating disorder at that stage as anorexia or bulimia.”
And for parents of vegetable-phobic toddlers, that is indeed food for thought.