NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
TODDLERS AND VEGETABLES
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
Q. My 3-and-1/2-year-old son will not eat vegetables at all, except (very occasionally) a couple of baby carrots. He has thus far defeated every one of the strategies I’ve used to sneak in veggies. He will eat certain kinds of fresh fruit, so I give him those whenever possible.
We also avoid sweets and use whole grains rather than refined flour. But I worry that he’s getting poor nutrition – his diet is so heavy on meat, cheese, pasta and bread (in addition to whatever fruit he will eat, the current favorites being cantaloupe and red grapes).
For his age, he’s only in the 25th percentile for height, while 50th for weight. Our pediatrician said he didn’t need a multivitamin and she didn’t see any cause for worry about weight. What do you think?
A. Vegetables! I hated them as a child – and I still hate them. My younger brother hated them more. As I watched my mother hover over him for hours trying to shovel vegetables into him, while completely ignoring me, I began to hate my brother even more than vegetables. Now you know why I became a pediatrician – to stamp out vegetables, and to overcome my guilt at wanting to kill my brother!
When I turned 50, I began to get along with my brother – of course we both had to wait for this moment until our mother had died. But I’ve never forgiven her for vegetables. So every time I am asked about young children and vegetables (and in the course of 50 years of practice, I have discovered that my mother was not the only mother who cared so deeply about vegetables), I tell mothers, and grandmothers, “Forget about vegetables.”
They turn pale. Open their eyes wide. Feel faint. I offer them a seat, and repeat, “Forget about vegetables.”
As they gasp for breath, I continue, “When a young child struggles with you over food, you won’t win. The more you struggle, the more he’ll hate whatever you’re trying to shovel into him. Back off. Apologize. Let him know that you know that only he can swallow the stuff you prepare for him.”
As they begin to recover, they stammer, “Really? No vegetables? No green vegetables? No yellow vegetables?”
“Really,” I say. “You can cover them with a multivitamin during this temporary period – usually between 2 and 3 years old – when any battle over food will backfire into even worse nutrition. They’ll make it through this with enough milk, meat, eggs, grains and fruit.”
As a pediatrician, I would carefully monitor for growth and general health. Height and weight need to be considered not only separately, but together, and not just at one single moment in time, but over time. The context of a child’s overall health, eating habits and activity level, and his parents’ height and weight, also need to be factored in. Any parent who is concerned about a child’s weight, height or eating certainly deserves to have this taken seriously by the child’s pediatrician.
Of course, the truth is that science is still working to identify all the active ingredients of vegetables, and how they promote health – and not all of these are contained in multivitamins. Yet even once this has all been fully worked out, there still will be certain basic bodily functions – such as eating and breathing – that we can’t take over or control for children.
Jessica Seinfeld has written an intriguingly entitled book, “Deceptively Delicious,” in which she whips up a number of child-friendly disguises for vegetables. If you try this kind of maneuver, try not to make an issue of it, or to take your stealthy nutritional missions too seriously.
Instead, keep mealtimes relaxing and enjoyable, and focus talk on fun things, but not on food.
Many children take time to acquire tastes for new foods, and their taste-sensing equipment actually matures with age. So in the meantime, you can introduce a vegetable over and over, in very small amounts, so that there is no pressure to try it. The tiny bit of new and different food should just repeatedly appear – without commentary, without pressure, without monitoring of or reaction to whether or not it is consumed. On the sixteenth time, you may be surprised to see the child give it a try, and you may be disappointed as you watch him spit it out. In the meantime, if you avoid processed sweets, and salty and fried foods, your child’s palate will not become overwhelmed with and addicted to these easy-reach taste blasts, and will be more likely to welcome the more subtle tastes of – vegetables.
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Before Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.