Sarah Krause
Sarah Krause

Getting kids to eat their vegetables has been an age-old struggle.

Stroll any cookbook aisle in your local bookstore for proof. Dozens of catchy titles jump out -- Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, Eat Like a Dinosaur, Child Diet Dilemma. There’s even Healthy Eating for Dummies.

So when a new book, titled Eat Your Vegetables and Other Mistakes Parents Make, came my way, I was curious -- particularly about those last three words.

Technically not a cookbook (although recipes are included at the end of each section), this book serves more as a how-to guide. The author, a pediatrician, registered dietician and mom, gives parents advice on building life-long healthy eaters without the traditional tricks, bribes and mealtime battles.

 So that raised my first question. When on a quest to develop produce-loving kids, why is it a mistake to tell our children to eat their vegetables? As parents, isn’t that naturally the first sentence out of our mouths at the dinner table?

Yes, but it shouldn’t be, author Natalie Digate Muth says.

She claims the problem with this strategy is that it backfires. Kids, like the rest of us, have minds of their own and instinctively resist persuasion. The more we pressure them to eat certain foods, the less likely they’ll be to develop a taste for them and continue eating them as adults, Muth reasons.

Research has shown that ultimately it comes down this: kids eat what tastes good. That’s pretty obvious. Of course this pushes us to intervene, blurting out that familiar axiom: “Eat your vegetables!” That’s never been more important nowadays given the obesity epidemic in our nation and recent studies showing only one in four kids and adolescents consume the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.

So, if you really want your kids to eat vegetables and other healthy foods because they like them, then you’ll have to employ different strategies, which Muth outlines in detail throughout the book. She starts by detailing the mistakes parents make.

Mistakes? Oh, boy, I thought, here we go.

She breaks the book into four major umbrella mistakes: Inherited, Underrated, Everyday and Overlooked. She also describes 12 common mistakes parents make when feeding their kids, such as using food as a reward, requiring a clean plate, catering to picky eaters, not speaking up during doctor’s visits and failing to walk the talk. She gives evidence-based advice on how to handle each situation. Her goal: redefining how to raise healthy eaters.

And that is where my experiment began.

I decided to try some of the author’s strategies on my own crew of three kids, ages 6, 8 and 12. The first order of business, adjusting my parenting technique from controlling to authoritarian. Mom decides what foods are available but kids choose what and how much to eat. Muth describes this as a counter strategy, giving kids control and choice.

Following her suggestions, I first make sure to expose my kids to a variety of produce, model my own good eating habits and give them choices. I asked: green beans or broccoli for dinner? The trickier part came when I had to give them control over whether they’d eat their veggies or not. According to Muth, kids are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if you let them choose not to. The boys ate their green beans right away without a word, but as predicted, our youngest choose the opposite – her vegetables sat in a cold, sad lump on her plate.

Children expect adults to push vegetables (what kid doesn’t love a power struggle?), but the author says not to be predictable. Instead, acknowledge their healthy choices or simply ask, “What would you like to do to make ____ taste better?” At the next meal, I employed this technique and discovered my daughter preferred raw green beans dipped in Ranch dip while the rest of the family ate them steamed.

And cleaning your plate? Not recommended. This teaches external cues (how much food is left on your plate) instead of internal cues (how hungry you feel). Muth explains that it’s more effective to teach kids to rely on their internal cues of hunger and satiety. After our ‘tween’s third helping of pasta instead of sugar snap peas, I had to step in and nudge his internal veggie meter. Other methods we tried to some success: putting dabs of food on their plates to start, letting them dish their own servings and even putting the serving dishes of veggies on the table right in front of them.

Much of the book was common sense (commit to eating together, have your child help with the meal, the importance of exercise, etc.), but other parts were helpful (pictures of serving sizes for kids, how to make healthy choices at school and at restaurants). Some got a little word-y (how humans experience food) and boring (the sounds of food? Really!?), but overall the author’s advice and techniques were spot on.

She also provides current info on the new “MyPlate” dietary guidelines and includes a section on selecting organic produce (yep - the Dirty Dozen/Clean 15 list is here). What I liked: an A-Z chart of how to choose fresh produce and when it’s in season.

The best piece of advice I came away with? It’s not so much about what your child eats but more about your approach. And my new approach includes refraining from uttering, “Eat your vegetables!” As I incorporate strategies I learned from this book. I’m pretty confident that our family is developing healthy patterns and eating a variety of produce. Besides, I’ve moved on to other concerns …

“Drink your milk!”